Our Shining City on a Hill

About the University of Michigan transportation forum of March 10, 2010, and what it said about the relationship of the UM and Ann Arbor.

The University of Michigan presented a thought-provoking look into its future on March 10 (see here for AnnArbor.com’s coverage of the event) by combining a student project with presentations both from vendors of alternative transportation and by people who are actually operating such systems.  But the evening also demonstrated how the UM is really another city or state, not part of Ann Arbor at all.  How will its future affect that of our city?

I love going onto the UM campus.  The very air is different, as though of a different ionization state.  The campus sparkles and is thronged with students preoccupied with the bigger issues.  The buildings are monumental.  And when we townies are allowed to participate in some of its events or lectures, the result is so stimulating.  Of course some of this almost somatic reaction of mine is due to my own history as a child of a college professor who became a college professor.  Until I moved to Ann Arbor, I was always part of a college campus in some role or another.  But I think that even those without this personal history can feel the magnetism and power of this institution and this campus.

It is almost as though the UM were part of an alternate reality.  Let’s suppose that we are still living in the Michigan of before September 11, 2001.  Our manufacturing sector is still strong.  The tech boom hasn’t yet faltered.  And local and state governments still have plenty of money for infrastructure and programs, enough to make grants and other investments in the future. The Federal budget is even in surplus!  In that auditorium, breathing that air and listening to the student presentation, I could almost believe.

As described by the forum’s moderator, Jim Kosteva, the forum was forecast by UM President Mary Sue Coleman last fall (a video interview is here and a discussion is here) when she said that she wanted to get in the cutting-edge, best thinkers on transportation.  She also acknowledged (rather perfunctorily) an interconnection with the city on transportation issues.  In the interview, she also says that the UM began to seriously consider the Fuller Road Station (also called the Fuller Intermodal Transit Station, or FITS) when they acquired the Pfizer campus on Plymouth Road, now called the North Campus Research Center (NCRC).  (The city webpage has a list of documents describing FITS;  the Ann Arbor Chronicle reviewed one of the public meetings about the station.)

Acquisition of the NCRC has nearly completed a necklace chain of campuses that make UM cut a swath through the heart (slightly displaced to one side) of Ann Arbor.  Beginning with the East Medical Campus in Ann Arbor Township at the corner of Plymouth and Earhart Roads, to the NCRC on Plymouth Road and then to North Campus (between Plymouth and Fuller Roads), the Medical Campus (Fuller Road to near Geddes Avenue), the Central Campus (near downtown, extending down State to Hill) and then to the Athletic Campus (between Main and State, and parts on South State), there is a nearly continuous crescent of UM property and facilities.

The students taking Industrial and Operations Engineering 424 were tasked last fall with applying their training to constructing (in concept)  a transportation system that would unite these campuses.  They worked in several teams to apply their training (which was not previously in transportation) to come up with fully-fleshed plans.  The class voted to use a monorail system for their plan.  (This eliminated several other possible choices, including buses, commuter rail, streetcars, and autonomous vehicles.)   With the monorail (an elevated system), the entire system would be traversed in a 24 minute round trip, with 9 stops.   There would be three high-capacity stations, at Fuller Road Station, CC Little in Central Campus (this looked to be compatible with recently announced plans for a transit center in this area), and Pierpont Commons on North Campus.  That would leave six lower-capacity “intermediate” stations scattered along the route.  All was very tightly calculated and scheduled, with different teams coming to similar estimates of time for the route.  Some dollar estimates were provided; the monorail system to cost $434 million (construction) and the stations $31-50 million.  It was stated that operating costs for the bus system could then be reduced.  (Different teams provided estimates for their own sections but there was no unified budget presented.)  One group did explore funding options, which included Federal funds: formula funds ($1 million), New Start money ($225 million) and another grant program (something about electrical transmission)for $10 million.  They estimated $421,000 annually from advertising and $1-2 million from parking revenues at NCRC (using the current parking lots, which require no new investment).  Mention was made of a “funding gap” with the AATA – apparently to pay the cost of the UM’s agreement with the AATA for connection with city buses.

Students were the major expected customer class, and a number of them were interviewed for the study. But the team also looked up zip codes for UM employees and found that most of them live north and west of Ann Arbor.  Accordingly, they made some regional transportation recommendations, including a connection between AATA buses and WALLY, a new freeway exit at Nixon Road, and a commuter shuttle bus between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti using the old Norfolk Southern railroad right-of-way.

The rest of the program including some eye-opening technologies and some examples of functioning systems.  The Cleveland Bus Rapid Transit system was impressive.  (Michael York, who spoke on behalf of the Euclid Corridor, noted that it has “train-like” properties and that it required total reconstruction of its route. ) The Minneapolis Hiawatha Line is a classic light rail application.  There were also funitels and automated people movers by Bombardier (their representative was so well prepared that he showed a stop at FITS on one slide).   My favorite of all was the Unimodal Personal Rapid Transit vehicle (a gondola-style maglev).  These typify what you would expect to see in a city of the future – what we used to call the 21st century.

But all these dazzling notions were brought down to earth when public comment began with a couple of speakers from the Center for Independent Living inquiring about access for the disabled. (One of the forum presenters pointed out that AATA provides paratransit service but the gondolas include a special ADA vehicle that is dispatched on request.)  Most of the public were speaking from the viewpoint of residents of Ann Arbor rather than UM students or employees.  Alice Ralph asked about the social impact of an elevated system vs. a ground-based system.  She pointed out that much of the talk about density in Ann Arbor over the last few years has focused on the notion of a vibrant street scene.  What is the impact of removing people to a system that isolates them from the street?  She concluded that “as a double community, we should talk about that”.  Another speaker, who identified himself as a “citizen who is part of the silent majority”, said that the point seemed to be only how to connect the UM corridors.  He pointed out that a lot more people use Plymouth Road and State Street besides UM-related travelers.  He asked whether the passenger numbers that were being used to plan the system included other consumers in the community and challenged the planners to look a little further – “is it good for the community?”.  Kosteva responded that “we are in partnership with the DDA and AATA to do signature corridor analysis and fully recognize the importance of the broader impact” (on the community at large). (He was referring to the Ann Arbor Connector Study; the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s comprehensive history is here.)  Richard (Murph) Murphy asked at the end how the planning was addressing different groups of users.  Part of the system will be carrying hospital visitors and much of it campus traffic.  How will the technology differentiate between those (and, I will add, other users)?

Peter Allen’s comment was one of his typically scintillating overviews and futuristic visions.  Allen nearly threw off sparks as he noted the gleaming future with the North-South rail (WALLY), the “game-changing” East-West rail (the Ann Arbor – Detroit project being managed by SEMCOG), the need to take into account the “bike agenda” and “walking agenda”, and the expected increase in Ann Arbor’s population as a result of the 5 years of analysis following the Calthorpe report.  He said that we would be adding 20,000 to 30,000 people to Ann Arbor’s population and reminded us that he teaches TOD (transit-oriented development) and spoke of the “sidewalk excitement” around the NCRC, with people living, shopping, and recreating in the new areas created by a state-of-the-art transit system.  But he had a somber assessment of the likelihood that Federal funds would be available to pay for the new system.  Instead, he said, we should look to the “excess” land around the stops and use it to create income to pay for the transit.  In other words, create dense development along the system line.  (Allen and his students have been advancing proposals for heavy development associated with FITS.)

Allen’s comments highlighted an uncomfortable inference I made months ago.  It appears that much of the city of Ann Arbor’s planning has been guided by the needs and plans of UM.  As I reported earlier, the city has engaged with the UM to plan FITS at a final estimated cost to completion of $40-45 million.  The memorandum of understanding was adopted by council in the summer of 2009.  But it appears that the major point of both FITS and the connector study (discussed in my earlier post)  would be to enable the UM transportation system.   As I also noted in another post, the city has engaged in a number of planning exercises that seem to be pointed at establishing TOD along “signature routes” as defined by the Ann Arbor Transportation Plan Update.  Two of the important signature routes are those highlighted in the UM plan, Plymouth Road and State Street.  Apparently, some invisible hand has been guiding city policy to fit the UM’s long-term plans for some time.  When the Area, Height and Placement public meetings were being held in the summer of 2009, one city planner was pushed repeatedly to explain why the pressure to pass these changes seemed to be so intense, given Ann Arbor’s current slow population increase.  He finally acknowledged that it was partly the UM’s expected employee growth. Put the UM’s expansive vision of its future together with the local wish to make a source of wealth available through development, and you have TOD and signature routes.

But what is the benefit to the city of Ann Arbor of these visions, increasingly being clothed with flesh?  When I say “the city of Ann Arbor”, I mean the civic body itself (the government and all its agencies), its residents, and its local businesses, as well as that group identity that makes us a community.  First, if these transit plans can be realized in any substantial part, will they be usable by the community at large?  The picture presented on Wednesday night was mostly that of an internal connection within the UM family of campuses.  Will advanced technology and signature routes make the life of the non-UM employee who lives in Ann Arbor any easier or better?  Will a UM monorail system (for example) even be accessible to non-UM personnel?  (To my knowledge, only UM students and employees can use their bus system.)

The second concern is the cost to our city and transportation budgets of realizing this vision.  The way FITS is materializing is troubling; we have committed to a fair proportion of its costs, and the funding thus far has come directly from our own infrastructure accounts.  But it seems unlikely that in its earliest form (as a mostly UM parking structure), it will benefit city residents.  Meanwhile, we read depressing headline after headline.  No more mowing in the parks.  Police and fire personnel being laid off.  Loss of trash removal a possibility.  Stadium Bridge is falling down. Our city grows shabbier and more and more down at the heels.  (I learned in January why my street is no longer cleaned after leaf pickup.  The street cleaners were shifted to another fund and they don’t do that kind of cleaning any more.  So I have leaf compost blocking the spring runoff.)  How do we afford supporting the UM’s needs or wishes, especially since they don’t pay taxes even on the new NCRC research facilities (which apparently will be hosting start-up companies).

All this seemed rather petty when sitting in that fine auditorium.  The UM’s vision makes a lot of sense from its own viewpoint.  It is an internationally recognized university with a far-reaching vision that is being realized successfully.  Our poor little shabby town has become something of an awkward appendage to this shining city within a city.   And even as a momentary guest in it, briefly I could believe.  But I still live here in the other city.  I hope that someone is watching out over us, too.


Note: the phrase, “a shining city on a hill” has a long history.  My picture of it was always as a dazzling promise of wonders to be aspired to, but where all may not enter in.

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11 Comments on “Our Shining City on a Hill”

  1. nancy k. Says:

    Very well said. Thank you.


  2. Jack Eaton Says:

    Thanks for another interesting discussion. In addition to the points you made, what struck me about this forum was the stark contrast between the UM’s process and the City’s process for major projects.

    The UM demonstrates real leadership in opening the discussion of its transit plan to the whole community, not just the University community. President Coleman announced the University’s intention to consider bold transit initiatives last year. The University followed up with this open ended discussion where every idea could be proposed. All of this discussion occurring well before the University settles on any particular plan.

    Contrast that with the library lot projects or 415 West Washington. The library lot parking structure was announced without any effort to seek public input. The library lot conference center was discussed and developed in secret for 18 months before the RFP was discussed in public.

    When the public tried to become involved in the library lot plans, the Mayor tried to divert attention of the “creative types” by raising a dormant plan to use 415 W. Washington as greenway and art space. But, in the City’s usual form, when residents suggested increased public participation in the 415 W. Washington project, the Mayor claimed that enough participation had already gone into the project. Probably not the best way to divert attention from the library lot.

    The difference between the City and UM is leadership. Real leaders are not frightened by creative or alternative suggestions. A good leader will gather the best information from as many sources as possible and make a decision based on that information. Decisions made in private, out of sight and knowledge of the public do not demonstrate leadership.

    The UM may provide broader leadership through this project. If the University designs and implements a clean and efficient transit system, those ideas may spread into our local public transit system. Imagine the AATA system of infrequent, meandering buses being augmented by quick, clean, frequent light rail or trams. I look forward to the UM’s continued discussion of transit development.

    • varmentrout Says:

      I agree with almost everything you say, Jack, except that I doubt the UM’s impact on our local transit system will be positive if our local resources are diverted to the UM’s system. I don’t see how we can have “quick, clean, frequent light rail or trams” serving all our neighborhoods, as the buses do, and I would hate to see AATA dismembered in order to pursue a much more expensive system unless (outside) funding can be identified that preserves everything we have now until it is fully replaced.

    • Steve Bean Says:

      Well said, Jack.

      The thought that enough public participation has occurred is, ironically, a signal that communication is lacking.

  3. varmentrout Says:

    I guess another thing I’d have to quibble with about Jack’s comment is the idea that the UM plans have been conducted openly. As I stated in the blog, an unseen hand has evidently been directing our planning and transportation in support of the UM transportation issues. I’d say quite a few discussions have been going on outside of public view.

  4. Leslie Morris Says:

    I can’t take blue sky meetings like this too seriously, because I don’t think any of this will happen except the parking structure on Fuller. The U. did need a parking structure for its medical facilities. And possibly the Fuller site will become an AATA transfer station, so that bus riders on the east side of Ann Arbor (and maybe someday the county) don’t have to go all the way downtown.

    The rest of it is just talk, that all the participants can refer to in publications or at other meetings, and put on their resumes. It helps build all their reputations as true forward thinkers. But the huge amount of money it would cost is not available to the U.,or to the city, or even the state or federal government. The feds will put money into some rail programs, but not this much money into a connector for several campuses of a single state university. There just isn’t enough need.

    The NCRC is going to take a long time to fill, regardless of the University planners’ wishes. Since departments are being asked to pay for any additional space there they use (after all, the health system has to be paid back for advancing the cash to buy the land), and since many don’t want to isolate themselves from colleagues, there is little enthusiasm except from the medical and engineering schools. And the U. is not in a position to finance the vast number of new positions they would like to create.

  5. Jack Eaton Says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that light rail could replace AATA buses. I suggested that buses could be augmented by light rail or trams. So a monorail could circle the perimeter of the city taking riders from one outlying location to another without visiting downtown, while other rail lines travel the main corridors from city center to the neighborhoods, all the while supplemented by buses reaching areas not served by rail.

    At the forum, I didn’t hear any suggestion that local transit funding would be diverted to the UM system. Capital projects, such as building light rail or monorail systems can be funded through the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Those FTA grants may have to pass through AATA, as the local recipient of federal funding, but that would not affect AATA’s ability to receive other capital funding for its buses or additional rail capacity.

    The danger to our local transit funding comes not from the University, but instead from the secret plan to divert the city’s transportation millage from AATA to WALLY.

    I don’t see any evidence of an “unseen hand” connected to the University. It seems to me that the driving force behind the city’s transportation and planning schemes is actually the fantasy that our population is going to grow dramatically (although it has not in the last 30 years) and that we should allow unfettered development to accomplish the Utopian vision of urban density.

    • Steve Bean Says:

      The wild card that could lead to ahistorical population changes is the energy descent that will occur after world peak oil. Will household size increase? Will suburban dwellers move closer to their place of employment?

      What happens won’t be due to desires of certain members of our community, but due to individual decisions by people who don’t currently live here. In other words, it’ll be driven by demand. The question for us is, will we act to prevent them from joining us or continue with plans to accommodate them in the locations and types of developments that will also benefit us current residents and our children?

      I say “continue”, but we’ve been a bit schizophrenic on this in recent years. Maybe it’s time to try to take a different perspective on the matter.

  6. varmentrout Says:

    At the December AATA planning and development meeting,and also at the December budget retreat, Sue McCormick specifically mentioned the idea of using AATA funds for “multimodal” uses; there was talk of repurposing the AATA millage for that purpose. I took that to mean FITS, though this entire concept is certainly related to WALLY also. It is still not clear where either the city or the university will get money to finance FITS, much less the rest of the plan. The quantity of Federal funds that have been available thus far even to the relatively well-conceived and well-planned Ann Arbor – Detroit rail have been very disappointing. Also, New Start programs are extremely difficult to qualify for.

    I agree that the Ann Arbor metropolitan dense urban utopian concept has also been involved, as has our mayor’s obsession with WALLY.

  7. Vivienne –

    Anyone can use the U of Michigan bus system without paying a fee or showing ID. Just get on. There aren’t coordinated transfers with the AATA system, but the AATA route maps do show at least some of the UM bus routes, and there have been a number of times where I’ve been able to use both UM and AATA buses to get where I want to go on the same trip.

    • varmentrout Says:

      That’s good to know, Edward, thanks. I’ll admit that I wouldn’t feel very comfortable in doing that, but the more indefatigable bus travelers should find that useful.

      The ownership and fee arrangements for a future trans-UM system are still something that should be kept in mind. With such an expensive system, it is difficult to imagine that it would simply be free to all users.

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