Train of Dreams

Discussion of the future of Washtenaw County transit systems (see our previous post on the AATA) has been complicated by a particularly compelling narrative that really has little to do with transit in the county.  The idea of an expanded commuter train system informs both the plans for the Fuller Road Station and the Transit Master Plan (TMP).   This dream of trains charms and confuses because it reaches so deeply into the psyche.

Trains occupy a singular place in our culture’s mind’s eye.  There is a romance, a jumbled set of personal and relayed memories that combine to make just the idea of a train the cause of an emotional rush.  I have those myself.  As a very young child, I traveled from Iowa to Oklahoma on a train at a time that black train porters were still exclusively serving refreshments on trains.   A very kindly man, the first black person I had ever seen, served me hot chocolate with real whipped cream and thus won my undying affection.  About that time there was a train track that ran near a field where I played. It must have been a steam locomotive.  We used to pick up cinders along the track, and sometimes we would hear the train toot as it drew near.  The driver would wave to us as he pulled by, the very picture of the friendly engineer.  Images of some great old trains

Trains have been important in many works of fiction.  Movies like  Murder on the Orient Express and From Russia With Love are still being joined by newcomers like the recent Water for Elephants (where the lost boy hops a boxcar and eventually makes it to the stateroom).  There are stories about ghost trains like the classic by Manley Wade Wellman and ghosts on trains (the movie Ghost).  A train is its own little world, secure and contained, and it takes you from one realm to another.

Local light rail or other intracity trains have become the modern dream of effortless travel. I’ve loved using the Metro in Washington D.C. and  the Bart system in the Bay Area, and the light rail connections running into downtown Portland, Oregon.   Anyone who has ridden a “trolley” or light rail automated system in a large city must have a glowing memory of that experience. For all these reasons and because of numerous positive personal experiences, it has been very easy to sell Ann Arbor area residents on the beauty of an improved rail system here.

And the TMP certainly calls for trains.  Two commuter rail lines (WALLY and the East-West commuter line to Detroit) are supported by the plan.

Proposed commuter lines in TMP

The plan also calls for local high-capacity lines that could be light rail, though other possibilities exist.  These are the Ann Arbor Connector and the Washtenaw Corridor, presumably based on the Reimagining Washtenaw project.

The high-capacity lines, from TMP

And what will this cost?  The financial plan for the TMP has not yet been released.  However, the Smart Growth summary released earlier this year estimated capital costs (only) over 30 years for these four systems as being $413.7 million.  (Summary table of capital costs from April report)  (This does not include the cost of the Fuller Road Station.) Operating costs are not really discussed, though the entire transit system is estimated to have an operating cost of $60.8 million by 2040.  For comparison, the budget for  the City of Ann Arbor General Fund (FY2012) is about $79 million.  The AATA’s capital budget for 2009 was $4.18 million and the 2009 operating budget was $24.45 million.  (More recent budgets could not be discovered on the AATA’s website.)

So how realistic is this plan and how will we resolve desire and reality?  More to come.

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