Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Whitmore Lake to Ann Arbor rail service coming this spring?

AANews reports that the city is pushing to implement this line ASAP in order to help relieve construction-related congestion on US23 this summer. We love the plan to link this rail service so directly to the ever-worsening traffic on US23, and this approach is certainly worth a shot before we decide to add lanes to the highway. Of course, the schedule is a little tight. It would be possible to finish the required improvements by March. The problem is in fast-tracking the funding.

Fortunately, potential funding source, MDOT, is working hard to break out of it's image as a heartless, bureaucratic stop-all controlled by the auto industry.

Tim Hoeffner, administrator of MDOT's Intermodal Policy Division, cast doubt on whether the proposed rail service could be running so soon. He said MDOT staff are reviewing cost estimates, schedules and other aspects of the proposal.

They clearly recognize the importance of acting quickly to take advantage of the current allignment of inter-government cooperation, public-private coordination, and urgent need for alternatives to an already crowded highway during major construction. Michigan is fortunate to have a DOT that considers all these hidden costs into their calculations.
"A big question is money," Hoeffner said. "Is there going to be sufficient ridership to justify making some sort of expenditure into it?"

You may think of MDOT as an advocate of highway construction. But the Intermodal Policy Division should be excited to participate in a project like this, with so much infrastructure already in place, so much local support, and such a low initial investment compared to most rail projects.
Hoeffner said he didn't know if the proposed service could be running by this spring.
"We were not real optimistic with them (in December), and I don't know if our position has really changed,'' Hoeffner said.

OK, so MDOT can't really be considered a supporter of the project. Obviously they have a procedure to follow and there are good reasons that that procedure is in place. We would be disappointed to see them throwing money around without some understanding of the risk. All the same, MDOT comes off like a real wet blanket in this article. It would be nice just to hear that they think the general concept is good, or that they support the effort to alleviate construction congestion. In the meantime, the city still seems optomistic. We hope that it pans out.

Yet, we can't close this issue without some constructive criticism. If we were distributing money at MDOT, we'd have to ask how many people would be willing to
-drive to a vacant industrial park in Green Oak Township
-buy a train ticket for a 20 minute ride
-disembark at Plymouth Rd. noreth of Barton Drive (aka middle of nowhere)
-board an AATA to UM Hospital, campus, or downtown
-walk the rest of the way to work
-pay $120/month to do this

That trip probably isn't going to be any faster than sitting through the construction traffic on US23. It's certainly not going to be cheaper, since you have to drive to the train station. And changing modes 3 times doesn't add to the attraction. We understand that there only so much can be done here, but some suggestions might be:
-add bike lanes on Plymouth and good facilities to encourage cycling from the train station (bikes will be permitted on trains)
-stop and start the train near some sort of amenity or service. this train goes from nowhere to nowhere..
-Put the tumbscrews to Ann Arbor Railroad to get that train into downtown, where it belongs
-DDA, UofM, Google, AANews, Toyota, other major employers need to make some commitment to this project. Discounted rail pass for employees is a great start.
-Include bus fare in the train ticket. Most riders should get a free ride through UM or go!pass

Despite the cynicism here, we really are hopeful for the project and the schedule. We'll continue to post updates and ways that people can get involved.


Murph said...

I think your criticisms are mostly fair, but some thoughts:

* Barton/Plymouth is quite close to North Campus and Pfizer (which will still be open here for the duration of the project). Certainly closer than many of the park and rides serving those destinations.

* Express shuttles to the Med Center, UMHS-Dixboro, and Central Campus/Downtown (express, not just the standard buses, with no-wait transfers) could make the A2 end of the process pretty painless.

* My officemate commutes from Howell. He works 7-4 to dodge congestion, but a few accidents or snow can cause him to be 60-90 minutes late. I imagine lane closures could cause very significant delays.

* Plymouth Road already has non-motorized paths on both sides towards downtown, and in places to the east (been a while since I biked it; can't remember how much is there)

* I had read the article to understand that the fare would include the transfer in A2?

So, sure, it's not a perfect situation. I don't think anybody intends it to be, though - I see it as an opportunistic experiment. Proof of concept. Prototype. If this is what we can do on the cheap, and get people to ride despite all the shortcomings, I see it as a Good Thing.

Scott said...

Thanks for the input, Murph.

I agreee that Barton/Pfizer is somewhat near a lot of destinations, and that is a Good Thing. I only wish that the terminus could be an actual place in itself instead of floating in the nebulous realm between places. I'd love to see the train stop closer to Lowertown or the business community at the top of Murfin. Unfortunately, the tracks don't run very close to either location, but they may be close enough for passengers to feel more like they were getting off the train in Ann Arbor, instead of being dumped on the side of the road. Of course there are a lot of factors that play into choosing a station location; there may be other obstacles that forced the Barton/Plymouth location.

Does anyone happen to know why this line wasn't extended all the way to Brighton? I thought that was the original plan and the article doesn't explain why they chose to end service in the middle of nowhere instead of continuing to town.

I support the effort to get this project going. But I'm torn as to whether we need to act fast and cheaply to get something now or whether this will end up as a half-assed effort that ends up proving that rail solutions aren't viable simply because we rushed and compromised to try something.

For the reader, a parallel discussion is running over at Arbor Update.