Ann Arbor’s Fading Dream of Trains and Rail Systems

The Mayor of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje, held a convocation of area leaders on June 15, 2006, in which he outlined a broad vision of transportation for Ann Arbor and the region.   As he explained (press release), the vision would bring environmental benefits (lessen air pollution), enhance quality of life, and increase the region’s economic competitiveness.  The vision was named the Mayor’s Model for Mobility.  Its elements were an East-West Transit (commuter rail) to link communities in Southeast Michigan, as well as a North-South Rail.  There would also be a local connector system to link up the two railroads, and a streetcar system that would encompass the many sprawling campuses of the University of Michigan.  The plan was illustrated by a sketch that is positively jolly.

Mayor's_Model_for_Mobility_20060008The vision was bold and in those heady days before the economic meltdown that affected local property values (and thus local property tax revenues), it seemed not unlikely.  Hieftje at that time was at the height of his influence, with a City Council that was solidly behind him.   He had the power of appointment to the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, the ear of our Congressman, John Dingell, and a strong relationship with the administration of the University of Michigan.

Since then, a lot has happened.  The economic collapse affected not only Ann Arbor, but Michigan and the nation.  There have been significant shifts in Congress and in attitudes toward transportation funding.  Prospects rose (with Obama’s election) and sank (Tea Party).  AATA (our local transit authority) put major effort into a countywide transit plan, which failed.  Then a smaller local urban transit millage succeeded.  A Regional Transit Authority centered on the Detroit Metro area was created.  Its millage failed and that effort is now in limbo.  (Some, but not all, of this history, is recorded in our posts on The Transportation Page.)

The remarkable thing is that, over a decade later and despite many discouragements, the current Mayor (Christopher Taylor) appears to be bent on fulfilling the original vision.  And its elements, especially those relating to rail travel, remain at the top of Ann Arbor’s priorities, as reflected by the Capital Improvements Plan.  But these are extremely expensive and rely on the assumption that there will be Federal grants to pay the major portions.

Looking At It With Clear Eyes

In light of recent changes, both in current transportation funding, and in the change of emphasis in the Presidency (as we indicated in the last post, the ground has shifted), how realistic is this vision now?  And how does this affect the rest of our local government initiatives, since we are presumably setting aside considerable funds in order to accomplish these decade-old objectives?

The timelines and priorities for some of the rail projects, such as the North-South rail (WALLY) and the East-West commuter rail, are more distant.  But the rail station (the Ann Arbor Station) is priorities # 1,2 and 3.  Also a very high priority is the Connector, a light rail system that will connect the UM campuses.  While the commuter rail projects and the Connector have other possible participants, the rail station is our very own.

First Comes the Train Station

The train station was part of a grant awarded to the State of Michigan from President Obama’s stimulus program.  That program, ARRA (American Resource and Recovery Act) was launched in 2009 and the availability of the funds is ending in May 2017.  Actually, the grant awarded is only to pay for the initial assessment of the site and preparation of a preliminary design and engineering review.

Mayor Christopher Taylor has consistently placed the Rail Station at the top of his list in importance for Ann Arbor.  In a recent article in the Ann Arbor News, he argued for its importance as he anticipates an increase in rail travel, including a new commuter rail service.  As described in a second article , Taylor was able to persuade a majority of his City Council to provide funds for work that cannot yet be done.

Council voted at the meeting of January 17, 2017 to allocate another $151,600 (matching funds for the ARRA grant).  As the background for the resolution states, availability of those funds is ending in May 2017.   This is awkward because the City is still awaiting a ruling from the Federal Railroad Administration as to the preferred site for a new station.  (The selection process has been arduous and there have been many delays.  More detail is available on the City website.  The two possibilities being considered are Fuller Park and the current site on Depot Street.) (Additional information and viewpoints are on the All Aboard on Depot Street website.)  Basically, the Council has now authorized funds for a contract which cannot be fulfilled at this moment but must be invoiced by May 2017.  (This is about 3 months from now, and critical information is not available.)

Money and Timelines

As always with government, much comes down to money.  How much will it cost? Where will it come from? When will it be spent?  The answers to some of these questions are in that Capital Improvement Plan mentioned earlier.  Staff takes all the information given to them and assembles timelines and cost estimates.  They also indicate some of the expected sources of the money.  But here are some important points to keep in mind.

The General Fund is the checkbook for the City’s cash flow.  It is the amount of money from property tax each year.  Most other funds in the budget are restricted to specific uses, such as roads from the road millage. If Council spends money on special projects, it is from the General Fund.  The General Fund revenues for 2016 were $83,617,342.  That’s $83.6 Million for the whole city.

Another important point is to recall that we are currently in Fiscal Year 2017.  It ends on June 30, at which point we will be in FY 2018.  Council is currently working on the budget for that FY, which will be passed in May 2017.  (Again, three months from now.)

Now look at this information from the CIP.  Note that some activities are already in process (2017).  But we have some big-ticket expectations, in a relatively short time.

Amounts from the FY 2016-2021 Capital Investment Plan. WALLY omitted.

Amounts from the FY 2016-2021 Capital Investment Plan.   WALLY omitted.

According to this, we’ll be building a train station in the next fiscal year (begins in July 2017)   And we’ll put more than 10% of the General Fund into this one project.

I don’t believe it either.  And there are other details.  The remainder of that $44.5 million is supposed to come from a Federal grant.  (Money has not been allocated.)  And I’m guessing that part of our General Fund amount is hoped to come from the State of Michigan.  AAATA is being tasked with a grant for some of the Connector expenses, but they have a hard time making all their current expenses.  The University of Michigan, on the other hand, has committed to major expenditures for the Connector, but this is not shown here.  Still, the mere scale of these commitments is breathtaking.

In the next post, more details about transportation funding as it might affect this project.  But meanwhile, all this is hard to take in.  Will we really rearrange our city priorities to accommodate this heavy a drain?  Are the uncertainties being considered?  How will it affect the budget (that has to take in all other City considerations) that is under preparation?  How much will this vision affect our reality?

UPDATE: At the February 13, 2017 Council Working Session, the City Administrator, Howard Lazarus, presented a slide showing new projections for the CIP.  It indicates $500,000 for the Ann Arbor Station for FY 2018 and $13 Million for FY 2019, with the cryptic notation, “New revenue or financing”.  For the Connector, it shows $600,000 for FY 2019, with nothing for FY 2018.  For FY 2020 and beyond, we now see $10 Million for the City alone, with the funding noted as “tbd”.

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11 Comments on “Ann Arbor’s Fading Dream of Trains and Rail Systems”

  1. Jeff Hayner Says:

    How soon before we see the Council Party’s 8 vote majority act to remove the “voters approval” (Section 14.3(b)) aspect of the Ann Arbor Station project? Will the Gang of Eight fall in line to try and squash the will of the people? Who will have the audacity to bring that motion forward?

  2. Timjbd Says:

    Despite Trump’s promises of infrastructure investments as a way to make him the greatest job-creator of all time, relying on the feds for this kind of funding is a real crapshoot. What happens if we get our portion done but the federal money never materializes? Would our $8.9 million (plus $165M) be used to get started with the understanding that the federal money was on the way? We could change/do a LOT with that kind of money.

    I think sending money to, or relying on money from, either our current state or federal governments for any kind of “progressive” agenda is a bad idea. As much as I’d love to see a great train system in Ann Arbor (and the rest of the US).

    Better to keep our powder dry until the climate is more conducive. That may mean our current city leaders will have to relinquish having their names attached to our bright transportation future. Can they do that? There’s much more low-hanging fruit available for local pols to earn nameplates- rooftop solar, for instance.

    The ‘now or never’ argument is persuasive to a point- given our building consumer debt bubble- but it has to be more than a flip of the coin.

  3. Robert Frank Says:

    Despite Mayor Taylor’s predictions of huge increases in train ridership in Ann Arbor, ridership drops every year for several years now.
    Also, at the public meeting on choosing a location, I asked the consultants if the coming soon autonomous cars were factored in to future ridership. I was given a blank stare, some verbal stumbling, and then, the answer, “No, we didn’t look at it nor did we take it into account”.
    I take the train occasionally. I support the ongoing track improvements to increase speeds and to lessen delays (the long delays are still too common).
    But, 99% of the time, the current station is adequate. Occasionally, during high college student use times, it is not as convenient at the station, but that is rare.
    Perhaps a way less expensive station upgrade is a way less expensive solution.
    After all, ridership trend is downward with no end in sight. Self driving cars will make car travel even more convenient, fast, and cheaper.
    Let’s prioritize our dollars elsewhere.

  4. John Floyd Says:

    Autonomous vehicles traveling in tandem on freeways would be trains – of a new variety. Conventional railroads – an 1830’s technology – will likely have a place moving freight for years to come, but its hard to see how point-to-point transit that functions as a train on highways would not make passenger rail obsolete.

    Are there any (credible) marketing studies that support vastly increased Det-Chicago Amtrak travel?

    • varmentrout Says:

      I can’t vouch for “credibility” or for a marketing study, but the Phase II Alternatives analysis for the Ann Arbor Station (dated August, 2016 and part of the City’s submission to the Environmental Review process) has a table. They (the consultants) do not give the basis or methodology for their projections. This is the one that projects a million passengers a day by 2045. Technically, it is the number of “on-offs”, people either boarding or deboarding at Ann Arbor.

    • Robert Frank Says:

      John, actually year over year ridership has been heading downward for ridership to Chicago. And quite drastically. Part of the problem is poor on time performance. I take the train occasionally, and has never arrived on time. My friends experiences match mine.

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