Monday, December 11, 2017

Ypsilanti Station News


In the mid-nineteenth century, Ypsilanti’s Michigan Central Railroad station was busier than Ann Arbor’s. Now, Ann Arbor’s is the busiest in the state, and Ypsi has no station at all. Since January 13, 1984, the last run of the Michigan Executive from Jackson to Detroit, no train has called at Ypsilanti for passengers. In fact, there is no longer any facility on which passengers can board or detrain.
Penn Central Railroad's Michigan Executive service schedule, October1974
The lack of commuter rail service between Washtenaw County and the Detroit area began to be missed in the early 2000s due to steadily growing automobile congestion. SEMCOG, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, commissioned a study of the corridor by the world-class transportation firm of Parsons-Brinckerhoff (now part of WSP Global). Their study, issued in 2006, compared commuter rail with light rail and bus rapid transit on several possible routes. The study’s conclusion was that commuter rail, with a stop in Ypsilanti, offered the most reasonable and economical option. Though the project advanced to the Federal level for funding, it was not approved due to lack of data comparing the new service with existing public commuter transportation; there is none to compare.

Ten years later, the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA) included a similar proposal in its Regional Transit Master Plan. This proposal included more than just “commuter service” the plan was for eight trains each way during the week, fewer on weekends. Unfortunately, when the proposal went to the voters for funding in November, 2016, it lost by less than 1 percent of the vote in the four-county Southeast Michigan RTA district.
RTA Transit Master Plan, with Wake Up Washtenaw proposed additions (see blogs of 2017-02-17 and 2017-03-10)

But Ypsilanti had already been discussing the need for a station platform. Amtrak officials agreed that some or all of the Wolverine Service trains would stop at Ypsi, in large part because of the presence of Eastern Michigan University and its more than 21,000 students. In March of 2016, state and local elected officials formally kicked off a two million dollar project to design, acquire permits, and construct a platform with transit-style shelters. Funds were raised from non-profits as well as the Ypsilanti City Council.
Bergmann/OHM  Ypsilanti Staion Plan 1a


In July of 2016, the two engineering firms contracted for the job, Bergman and OHM, had presented several possible station models, from a single platform with six shelters, to a two-platform layout with overhead crossover, elevators, and accessible ramps. But City Council had other problems to deal with, including massive debt for a contaminated property in the City. By October, Council put the project on hold, and it has remained on hold ever since.
Bergmann/OHM Ypsilanti Station Plan 3a

Many people ask, “Why not use the Freight House?” The Ypsilanti Freight House is a classic 19th century building that has been repaired and renovated by a dedicated group of Ypsi citizens, the Friends of the Ypsilanti Freight House. It’s a grand old building; noble, but nothing fancy. However, it is a Michigan Historic Building, and no alterations are permitted. This has ruled out using it for passengers, because it would require extending the existing platforms and substantially changing the shape and appearance of the building.
Ypsilanti Freight House historic building plaque.

Rep. Ronnie Peterson
54th District, Michigan House
Fortunately, there are many citizens in Ypsi who are well aware of the potential of a station to revive the economic prospects of Ypsilanti. The project has support from representatives in the Michigan House; initially, Rep. David Rutledge, of Michigan’s 54th State House district, and now his successor, Rep. Ronnie Peterson. Debbie Dingell, the U.S. Congressional representative for the 12th District of Michigan, is also a staunch supporter of the project. However, all these representatives are in the minority party, which constrains their ability to provide the needed financial support.

Nothing daunted, Rep. Peterson has undertaken to raise support in other ways. He has held discussions with Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and Amtrak. He has requested staff support from the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA). And he has organized a spectacular event to raise awareness and get the process moving again.

Derrick James, Amtrak
The event was held Friday, December 1, 2017. With the assistance of Derrick James, Director, Government Affairs at Amtrak, Rep. Peterson arranged for Amtrak 350 to stop in Ypsilanti to pick up about 35 community leaders. Since the platform is frozen in the planning stage, the train had to pick up people in the grade-crossing at Cross and River Streets.

Amtrak Wolverine Service 350, boarding passengers on Cross Street, Ypsilanti
So the first stop in almost 34 years to pick up passengers in Ypsilanti occurred in at the crossroads of Depot Town, about 1:45 PM.

Many of the group had never traveled by train, and were amazed at the comfort in Coachclass, at the quiet running, the smooth ride, and the apparent speed of the train. Most were surprised how quickly and easily the train brought them to Detroit, after a brief stop in Dearborn’s beautiful new Dingell Transportation Center. John O’Reilly, Mayor of Dearborn, was among the enthusiastic participants.

Sean Duval, President, Golden Limousine
In Detroit, Rep. Peterson had arranged for Golden Limousine to carry the group in two comfortable buses, thanks to Sean Duval, President, who is active in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce and a strong supporter of the Ypsi station project. The group went first down Woodward Avenue to enjoy the splendid art deco Guardian Building (also home of Transportation Riders United, a Wake Up Washtenaw partner). On the way, an enthusiastic tour guide gave Washtenaw County folks every reason to understand why Detroit is definitely worth coming to.

As if that was not enough, the group was treated to a beautiful tour of the Detroit Institute of Arts, including explanations of the unforgettable Diego Rivera Detroit Industry murals, and a special exhibit of Claude Monet and Frederick Church paintings.

Heading home, a lively duet was playing for the group and fellow passengers in the Detroit Amtrak station. Train 355 arrived pretty much on time, and again group members were impressed by the rapid comfort of the trip to Ypsilanti.
Some elected officials who participated. Left to right:
John "Jack" O'Riley, Mayor of Dearborn; Yousef Rabhi, 53rd District, Michigan House; Adam Zemke, 52nd District, Michigan House; Ronnie Peterson, 54th District, Michigan House; Brenda Stumbo, Supervisor, Charter Township of Ypsilanti; Beth Bashert, Ward 2, Ypsilanti City Council; Pete Murdock, Ward 3, Ypsilanti City Council.



Arriving in Ypsi, crowds of Friday night revelers were on hand. Normally unfazed by Amtrak blasting noisily through the middle of Depot Town, many were amazed to see the train stop, and a large group of passengers actually get off. One young woman danced around hugging her friends, shouting, “The train is coming! The train is coming!”
Amtrak Wolverine Service 355 stopping in Cross Street to let off tour group. Enthusiastic onlookers, hugs.

Impressive as the event was, there is clearly a great deal of work to be done. The first step is for Ypsilanti City Council to approve continuation of the station project. This should be somewhat easier, now that city voters have approved a debt retirement millage, freeing the city from the “albatross hanging around its neck” or at least giving it some breathing room to invest in its future. Many details need to be ironed out, but the enthusiasm generated by this event seems very likely to translate into action.

[A slightly different version of this blog post appeared in On Track, the bulletin of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, Number 75, December 2017, page 2.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

SMART Adds Three Limited-Express Routes

The suburban Detroit transit authority, SMART, is inaugurating three Express routes, with stops every 1-2 miles apart. Starting January 1, 2018, they are planned to radiate from downtown Detroit on Gratiot, Woodward, and Michigan Avenues.

If you're at all familiar with the Southeast Michigan RTA's plans, this will sound eerily reminiscent of both the RefleX service running now on Woodward and Gratiot, and the mandate handed down to the RTA from the State Legislature, to establish "rolling rapid transit" on those same three corridors.

Currently, SMART operates RefleX service on Gratiot out to Mount Clemens, while DDOT operates RefleX on Woodward as far as Somerset Mall. The RTA established these two as a foretaste of "rolling rapid transit" - which was the Legislature's way of saying Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) without uttering that distateful word, BUS. Unfortunately, the RTA found only enough funds to run RefleX every 45-50 minutes, but I'm told they're fairly well used despite their infrequent appearance.

SMART's service will run nuch more frequently. On Woodward and Gratiot, it will operate every 10 minutes during peak periods, every 20 off-peak, from about 5 AM to 1 AM. Excellent frequency and span of service! The Gratiot route will go to Mount Clemens, then split with alternate buses serving two park-and-ride lots; the Woodward route will split at Big Beaver, every other bus going either to Troy Civic Center or Pontiac Phoenix Center.

The Michigan Avenue service will go to Detroit Metro Airport, calling at both Macnamara and North Terminals. Span of service will be the same excellent 5-1 as on Gratiot and Woodward, but unfortunately it will only operate at 30 minute intervals during peak periods, and hourly off-peak.

Schedules for these new routes are not public, probably because they haven't been finalized yet. I'm told to expect the runs to be 10-20% faster than local buses, though that may be a conservative estimate. We'll see.

This is really significant. For the first time, we can take a bus from DTW to downtown Detroit, going fairly rapidly and directly. Obviously this will be much slower than the airport service to Ann Arbor, which does not stop for passengers at all between the airport and downtown Ann Arbor.

However, the combination of these services is awesome, especially considering the fare policy: same as local, $2.00, and transfers are valid to other SMART and DDOT buses. That means that for $2.00 you can get from the airport all the way to Mount Clemens, Pontiac, or Troy. It may be slower than an airport limo, but the cost really makes it worthwhile.

My hat is off to the folks at SMART!

To learn more:

SEMCOG 2045 Growth Forecast

Every five years, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) does a thirty-year forecast of population and economic growth. The draft of the 2045 forecast is on the street now. It's just a "crystal ball" but it's probably the best guess we'll get. I like to think of the SEMCOG forecast as "what will happen if we don't do anything different". I sure hope we "wake up" and change how we do stuff in Southeast Michigan.

Overall the region is pridicted to grow slowly in both population and economy...if we keep on with "business as usual".

In population growth, Washtenaw is the fastest-growing in the seven-county SEMCOG region. Within Washtenaw, the City of Ann Arbor is expected to grow the most. We'll see what effect Ann Arbor's divided opinions about growth have, though. If either Planning Commission or Council in Ann Arbor don't like "growing up" or can't think of anyplace they'd like to put the 19 thousand forecast new residents, they'll go elsewhere.

Ypsi Township is expected to hold on to second place in population. But the spotlight for fastest growing unit in the county shines on little Saline Township, more than doubling in population, a growth rate of 127%, followed by Manchester, with 72% growth. Both these units remain well under 5,000, despite their belt-stretching rate of growth.

Here's a summary of Washtenaw County's guestimate.This table shows the better-known units of the county, plus those forecast to grow by more than 5,000 people. In each category, first place is colored red, second place blue.

Area 2015 Population 2045 Population Population Growth Percent Growth
Washtenaw County 358,550 450,133 91583 25.4%
Ann Arbor 117,302 136,606 19,304 16.5
Ann Arbor Twp 4,771 9,919 3,323 57.1
Chelsea 4,823 6,245 1,422 50.4
Dexter 4,351 4,535 184 29.5
Manchester 1,925 3,311 1,386 72.0
Manchester Twp 2,526 4,295 1,769 70.0
Northfield Twp 8,167 13,440 5,273 64.6
Pittsfield Twp 39,130 55,986 16,856 64.6
Saline 8,193 9,020 830 10.1
Saline Twp 1,890 4,289 2,399 126.9
Scio Twp 18,006 23,609 5,603 31.1
York Twp 8,800 15,190 6,390 12.6
Ypsilanti 20,395 25,466 5,071 24.9
Ypsilanti Twp 55,545 63,564 8019 14.4

Job growth has been forecast by Fulton and Grimes, the duo of economists at U of M who are known nation-wide for their astute forecasts.

With education and healthcare the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, it's hardly surprising that Ann Arbor has the greatest number of new jobs. Pittsfield Township has the second-largest growth, though Ypsi Township holds on to second place in total job growth. Once again little Manchester has a surprise for us: the fastest rate of employment growth: 63%. Unfortunately, that represents under 600 jobs. York earns second place in the rate of job growth, with 56.7% - but the number, under 2,000, is not overwhelming. Again, in each category first place is colored red, second place blue.

Area 2015 Jobs 2045 Jobs Job Growth Percent Growth
Washtenaw County 254,632 296,393 41,761 16.4%
Ann Arbor 127,235 145,532 18,297 14.4
Ann Arbor Twp 8,782 1,3485 4,703 53.6
Manchester 895 1,464 569 63.6
Pittsfield Twp 25,458 26,529 1,371 5.4
Scio Twp 14,987 15,738 751 5.0
York Twp 2,825 4,427 1,602 56.7
Ypsilanti 11,168 13,740 2,572 23.0
Ypsilanti Twp 16,457 25,005 8,548 51.9

 

 

Want more detail?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Economic Equity: Why Ann Arbor's Station Should be by University Medical Center


County-wide perspective

Housing in Washtenaw County is becoming increasingly disparate in value. Seeing the signs of this clearly reflected in contrasting communities like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County commissioned a study by czb which produced a report in 2015 titled, "Housing Affordability and Economic Equity - Analysis". The headline conclusion:
The imbalance in income, education and opportunity between the jurisdictions along with the segregation that goes with it will hamper the regional economic growth potential of the area. Regions that experience strong and more stable growth are typically more equitable, have less segregation and better balanced workforce skills within them. (All links at end of this post)
This is very relevant to the Ann Arbor station's location. The University of Michigan Medical Center, with approximately 20,000 employees and growing by 700 jobs per year, is the largest job center in the county. This is nearly double the number of jobs available in downtown Ann Arbor. If this center is within a five-minute walk of the station, many people will benefit. On the other hand, if the station is located at Depot Street and Broadway, there is a very real possibility that the housing disparity will be worsened.

Ann Arbor is a victim of its own success. Housing prices are rising steeply as traffic congestion worsens. The largest contributor to this problem is the University of Michigan, especially its Medical Center.

Employees come from all points of the compass, but the largest number come from Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. Together with those arriving from north and south on U.S. 23, they fill all east-west arteries leading to the Medical Center every morning, and again every afternoon. Every artery, with the exception of one: the state-owned east-west railroad.

Meanwhile, communities on the eastern edge of Washtenaw County are experiencing fiscal distress. Those who work as support staff at the University Hospital and Central Campus can't afford to live in Ann Arbor, so many live in the Ypsilanti area. But their commute - whether by car or by bus - is growing longer and more arduous as congestion increases. No relief is in sight for these struggling communities or their residents, because roads cannot be expanded, and even bus rapid transit, which has been proposed by the Regional Transit Authority, cannot be given any dedicated lanes due to space and capacity constraints.

The University of Michigan is actively seeking to take more land near the Medical Center for parking.
Because of the growth that we've been able to enjoy at the medical center, bringing about additional jobs and employment opportunities, as well as expanded service that comes with that growth, obviously we have a demand from the university employees to be able to provide more parking to address their needs as well, [Jim Kosteva, quoted in The Ann Arbor News, October 10, 2017] said.
Even with robust area and university bus systems, automobiles still flood the area, causing concern to residents, according to interviews in The Ann Arbor News, October 10, 2017. The University could have located a medical facility on the land in question. Instead, every new parking facility not only takes land off the City of Ann Arbor tax rolls, but also out of productive use, forcing the University to decentralize medical services to multiple sites. Sharing expert medical staff between dispersed facilities reduces the productivity of highly specialized staff whose time is extremely valuable.

So City, County, University, and staff will immediately benefit if rail service is offered between the Medical Center and other points in the county. This is especially true between Ypsilanti and the Medical Center, because it would dramatically raise the value of housing in areas surrounding the Ypsilanti depot. This is true of both the City and the Township of Ypsilanti, since the depot is in the City, but only a few blocks from the Township. Using census data from 2013, I've analyzed commuter flows in the Detroit Metro area; the largest flow into Ann Arbor is from Ypsilanti Township (8,038), which together with the City of Ypsilanti (3,046) contributed 11,084 daily commuters in 2013.
Rail service, especially if offered as a shuttle, would reduce commuting time from roughly 30 minutes during rush hour to just under 15 minutes. Compared to other options, such as building an elevated transit guideway over Washtenaw Avenue, a rail shuttle is remarkably inexpensive.

Wouldn't this work just as well if the station is at Depot Street?

No.

First because the Depot Street location is within a five-minute walk of well under 5,000 jobs. A station within five minutes walk of 20,000 existing jobs attracts many more riders than a station within 20 minutes walk of those jobs. True, Depot Street is within 10-15 minutes walk of 11,000 jobs in downtown Ann Arbor, and 15-20 minutes of the University's Central Campus. On a beautiful spring or autumn day, it would be a pleasant way to get to work, but there's also summer and winter, rain, snow, and ice. Traffic and parking problems would be right back to haunt everyone during bad weather. Capacity to handle bad weather would be the determining factor for transportation capacity.

Of course, a fleet of buses could be run to take people from Depot Street to Medical and Central Campus, but it would be much quicker and less expensive to take people where most of them need to go in the first place. And buses would need to run from Depot Street to downtown as well, since it's uphill, and in bad weather most people will not want to walk there either.

What about Transit Oriented Development Potential?

Depot Street has greater potential for TOD than the Hospital site, and I'm all in favor of TOD. But as Clark Charnetsky points out, "Why not Development-Oriented Transit?" In other words, the development has already taken place at the Medical Center, so let's bring transportation to it.

Does Ann Arbor really want more intensive development of the Depot/Broadway area? Will further development not raise land values and housing costs even more? It would seem to exacerbate the existing housing disparity rather than resolve it.

But it's a Park!

Some Ann Arborites are very focused on the parkland issue, to the exclusion of many other relevant considerations. As I have pointed out before, there is already plenty of parkland in the vicinity of the Medical Center. The proposed station would reduce the amount of parkland within 3/4 of a mile by about 1.8%. (See calculations of this in the Wake Up Washtenaw White Paper. Ann Arbor Station Location, linked below.)

While those with the means to live in the City of Ann Arbor are concerned about their parks, those in surrounding communities are concerned about their livelihood. People and communities are being financially squeezed by the growing prosperity of Ann Arbor. As is so often the case, one city's prosperity depends on the labor of people who cannot afford to live in a prosperous community.

I'd like to suggest that 1.8% of a prosperous community's parkland is a small sacrifice for the prosperity brought, in part, by the labor of less fortunate neighbors.

But it's not just to help out the neighbors, either. Which is Ann Arbor’s bigger environmental problem: lack of parkland, or too much parking land? According to The Ann Arbor News (October 10, 2017),
UM currently has more than 27,000 spaces in Ann Arbor spread out among 16 parking structures and more than 200 parking over approximately 253 acres of land.
That number is ominously close to the 339 acres of park and recreational land within 3/4 mile of the proposed station site, and does not include any of the Ann Arbor DDA's many parking facilities. So let's find as many ways as possible to reduce the need for parking, and that certainly includes locating a rail station as close as possible to the University of Michigan Medical Center.
To learn more:

Friday, October 13, 2017

An Open Letter on a Contentious Issue

My friend Susan Pollay and I find ourselves on oposite sides of an important question: where should the new Ann Arbor railroad station be located?

I used to favor the Depot Street site, or more precisely a site just a little west of Depot Street on North Main. A few years ago, I reluctantly admitted that wasn't practical, and acknowledged that Fuller Road by the U of M Medical Center made the most sense. Since then, I've put quite a bit of thought into the matter, and advocated publicly for the Medical Center site.

Last night, Susan and I were at a public meeting regarding the station location, at which the announcement was made that the Medical Center location was recommended. Susan voiced her strong disagreement with that decision, requesting more study focused on the development possibilities at Depot Street and the potential impact of connected and autonomous vehicles, ride-hailing services, and other changes in the way automobiles are used. She also left several copies of written comment backing up her (necessarily) brief statement. I am responding to this statement in the open letter which follows:

Dear Susan,

It was good seeing you briefly last night at the Public Meeting on station location. We find ourselves (unusually!) on different sides of this issue, and I'd like to comment in response to some of the points you made in your written statement.

You begin very clearly opposing the location: "I STRONGLY believe that the train station should remain on Depot Street. The City's choice is not sound for many reasons." You dive into the issues discussing the parking recommendation.

The City's study used Amtrak's formula for computing the number of spaces needed. It's good to question that formula: quite possibly it is not appropriate for emerging transportation modalities. And I agree that Amtrak's total lack of parking management is partly responsible for the overcrowding of their lot. Your comparison with the AirRide parking arrangement is insightful and helpful. (Though I have used the free Amtrak parking lot for many long trips, and have often been thankful for whoever is responsible for keeping it free!)

But I have to take exception to this bald assertion: "Fuller Road is an unwalkable location..." Unwalkable? How do you figure that? I've walked there many times, and I'm reasonably confident that hundreds of people walk and bike there every day. Perhaps you mean that it's too far to walk there? Well, that depends on where you expect people to walk to and from. If you're one of the 20,000 or so people who works at the medical complex, it's very walkable. Or perhaps you mean the traffic is so congested on Fuller that it's difficult to cross? With the current traffic signal at Fuller and Emergency Drive, crossing is safe and accomplished daily by hundreds of people - though the wait can be long. I'm a bit more concerned about the safety of pedestrians at the proposed roundabout, but without seeing the plans one can't be specific.

In the next section, you claim that "we learned last year the Connector isn't going happen...". Wait a minute - that's not what I learned! My understanding is that the Connector is being re-evaluated by the University. OK, the light rail plan is looking more ambitious than the City and University expected, but the option of doing nothing is looking just as bad as it did when the plan was first conceived. Something has to be done to better connect the northeast with main campus and downtown. We just don't know what it will look like, except that linking Depot Street with improved connectivity will be more expensive simply because of the geography.

"The report authors must not realize that it's an easy 10 minute walk to/from the Kerrytown District and the Old Fourth Ward and 5 minutes from Lowertown." First, it's not such an easy walk to Kerrytown and especially Old Fourth Ward if you're pulling any amount of luggage. It's uphill. I know. I've done it quite a few times. Try it in winter, with snow cleared imperfectly. It's not for the faint of heart, let alone those with difficulty walking or outright disabilities. Lowertown is a much easier walk, but it's actually just as close to Fuller Road as to Depot Street.

Kerrytown and Old Fourth Ward are popular, quaint neighborhoods, but compared with the number of people employed at the Medical Center and the number of people who visit it daily, they don't have anywhere close to the number of potential passengers. Lowertown is certainly a potential source of station users, but we don't know what will actually emerge there, and as I mentioned, Lowertown is practically equidistant from both sites.

"Yet, there are virtually no humans living within the same radius of the proposed Fuller location." People living near a station may occasionally use the train. People working near a station or visiting near it are far more likely to use the train, especially when regional/commuter service begins. That medical complex is the 800-pound gorilla in Washtenaw County: nowhere else is there such a large number of jobs and visitors in such a compact area.

"Only a very small percentage of UM hospital employees live convenient to the Amtrak rail corridor, so the likelihood of many using the train to commute is slim." Here again you speak with a certainty that that's difficult to support. You also speak as if the future is static, and will look like the present. But you know as well as I do that transportation options shape the development of communities. When Southeast Michigan finally wakes up and gets commuter rail going, the real estate landscape will change, just as it has in regions like Denver, Salt Lake City, and Portland.

My own public comment at the meeting focused on housing disparity between eastern and central Washtenaw County. I want to expand on that elsewhere, but I will point out that several thousand University employees commute daily from eastern Washtenaw to the U of M Medical and Central campuses. This creates a flow of cars and buses that the road system is already incapbable of handling effectively. Ten years ago, the SEMCOG study of the Detroit-Ann Arbor corridor predicted that the Ypsilanti-to-Ann Arbor segment would see the heaviest ridership on the corridor. Today's traffic congestion and bus ridership are demonstrating the validity of that prediction and the need to provide better alternatives.

In short, while the Depot Street options provide potential, the Fuller Road site provides actual riders who seriously need alternatives. That's why I reluctantly had to change my own preference for the Depot Street/North Main location to Fuller Road. I think you'll see the need for locating at Fuller if you step back and look at the needs more holistically.

Your friend,

Larry Krieg

>

Friday, March 24, 2017

What's next for Wally?


Well, the final - long-delayed - public meeting series has wrapped up for the feasability assessment of the North-South Rail project. That's the commuter service proposed eleven years ago to serve between Howell and Ann Arbor, affectionately known as Wally.

Playing "by the rules", Wally gets a grade of C from the project team.

Only a C?

As Bob Moore (Quandell Consulting's engineer on the project) explained it, the likelihood of getting Federal funds to continue the project depend, at this stage, on a preliminary analysis of its cost-effectiveness. This is currently calculated by a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) prescribed formula of the cost of each individual trip, given the ridership forecast generated by an FTA approved forecasting model called STOPS.

Nobody know exactly how STOPS works, except that it takes data on commuter flows, job locations, and demographics; and comes out with an estimate that allows FTA to compare projections across the country on the same, even footing. So even though we don't know how it works or (necessarily) trust it, we know it's the only model that could - just possibly - get more federal funding for Wally. (The current study was funded by about $800K in federal, and much less in state/local money.)

Several service configurations were analyzed, and two emerged as worth bringing forward:

Option 1: Full Service. Between downtown Howell and downtown Ann Arbor, 30 miles. Four trains to Ann Arbor in the morning, four to Howell in the evening. Daily one-way riders'  trips, according to STOPS: 1,840 initially, growing to 2,346 by 2040. Capital to put it into service, a generously estimated $122.3M, with $13.2M to operate it. What would a trip cost the rider? For a single one-way ticket between Ann Arbor and Howell, the team thought $6 looked about right, taking into account what other commuter services around the country are charging. The trip would take 51 minutes, which is longer than by car, except during rush hours - which are the only times the trains would run under this option). During rush hour, it takes longer by car, but you can never tell how much longer, because the frequent incidents and weather events make the commute very unpredictable. Cost to operate: $4.55 per trip, achieving FTA rating Medium Low (C- in school-jargon).

Option 5b: Shuttle with two trains. Between Whitmore Lake and downtown Ann Arbor, 11 miles. Four trains to Ann Arbor and two returning to Whitmore Lake in the morning; four to Whitmore Lake in the evening and two returning to Ann Arbor. Capital $65.2M; operating expense $7.0M per year. Daily trips according to STOPS: 1,670 initialy, and 2,420 by 2040. Time: 21 minutes, fare $2. Cost to operate: $2.68 per trip, earning FTA rating Medium (call it a C).

I'd like to go into a lot more detail on what each option involves - particularly where all the money is going and what might be done to reduce the cost. I'll do that soon, time permitting.

By the Rules - Which Rules?

Since this study started in 2014, the terms of the contract required an exposition of rules under the Obama administration. Those are the rules nominally in effect now, but the Trump administration and allies in Congress propose serious changes to the rules.

First, they want the rules for project-funding to be simpler and require less environmental study.

Second, they want to eliminate most funding to public transportation that benefits communities without making a profit. In effect, it will become easier to apply for non-existent funding.

As a result, the new federal rules - when they are enacted - will have a weighty, but unknown impact on Wally and all other attempts to expand public transportation.

New Reality

On the other hand, the current administration would like to involve more private entities, encouraging them to invest money in "infrastructure". Unfortunately, their campaign rhetoric didn't specify exactly what kind of infrastructure they want this to include. In effect, this will leave the decision to "the market" - which will invest in projects with the highest direct monetary return.

So communities like Livingston and Washtenaw that want to improve themselves through public transportation will have to look elsewhere for others to pay for their infrastructure.

Certainly, the name of the game for quite a while has been to find someone else to pay for our benefits. We wrestled with this in February at WATS, after learning that Michigan's Department of Transportation doesn't have money for community-led projects, like a safety island for pedestrians to cross Washtenaw Avenue just east of U.S. 23. But we're not willing to set a precendent to pay for our own pedestrian safety on a state-owned highway. That's understandable, but the need to pay for our own community amenities will only increase over the coming years. However, that's a topic for another blog.

Wally's Next Baby-Steps

Most of us who want to get aboard Wally are very frustrated. This "baby" is taking SO long to learn to walk!

Some have said it's being analyzed to death, but it might be more accurate to say it's being neglected to death. The first analysis was done in 2008; this next step, more detailed and involving more federal safety requirements (particularly positive train control) was supposed to take 18 months, but took closer to 36. Why? I've never been able to learn why. "Names are not being revealed in order to protect the guilty," as they say.

Up to now, AATA and AAATA have acted as custodian of the "baby", but really only as foster-parents. The Authority doesn't have experience running trains, and doesn't run anything - even buses - in Livinston County. In order to move forward, some loose form of coalition, possibly under Michigan's "Act 7" according to the study, will need to band together to find money for the next phase of the project.

Fortunately, there is a dynamic group in Livingston County calling themselves the "Livingston Transportation Coalition" moving forward "with vigor" to get a county-wide Livingston Transportation Authority started.

There is no Wally support group active in Washtenaw County that I know of. The original Wally Coalition, which I believe started around 2005, is sadly dispersed. Prominent members included Dick Carlisle, a Principal of the Carlisle-Wortman Associates planning firm; Tony Vander Worp, Washtenaw County Planning Director (in the days when there was one); and W.O.P. John, artist and entrepreneur, who developed the lovable smiling Wally locomotive logo.

The Wally Coalition has been succeeded by the Friends of Wally. They have a respectable mailing list and friends list, and a small but active core chaired by Mike Lamb of Howell, drawing almost all its active members from Livingston County. (Full disclosure: I am the "token" Washtenaw County member on the Friends' Board.) They have been very helpful in keeping Wally in the public and official eyes of Livingston: updating a Facebook page, setting up booths at fairs, organizing people to speak up at city- and county-council meetings, and working as part of the Livingston Transportation Coalition.

In both counties, anti-tax agitators will predictably be a challenge to getting the project going. My belief, though, is that even people who are reasonably well-disposed to public transportation will need more to vote for than either of the rail commuter services being proposed.

So, What Else?

Here's the problem. Wally would be a great help to some of the people living near the proposed stations at Whitmore Lake, and if/when the full service option gets going, those up the line in Hamburg, western Brighton, and Howell. But as I see it, neither of the proposals as offered in the study deliver enough value for enough voters to come anywhere near passing, no matter how the voting districts are drawn. There are several limitations to the proposals that lead me to that conclusion.

First, the areas served. If all the service runs in to Ann Arbor on weekday mornings and back in the evenings, practically nobody living in Ann Arbor would have any use for it. In Washtenaw County, only residents of Northfield Township (Whitmore Lake) would benefit directly. Certainly Ann Arbor would benefit by not having as many cars pouring in, clogging the streets and demanding parking, but residents of the City see the residents further north as being "to blame" for the problem. "Let them move to the city!" is the refrain I hear quite often, and though I don't believe Ann Arborites would like it if that happened (be careful what you wish for!) it's simply unreasonable in American society to expect suburban and exurban people to move to cities in large numbers.

Second, the times service is offered are not enough. Rush-hour in and rush-hour out is when train service is of greatest value to the largest number, true. But the lack of provision for shift workers (hospital, IT, and other large employment groups) and irregular travelers (university students and faculty, hospital visitors, outpatients, and tourists seeking to avoid downtown Ann Arbor parking hassles) seriously reduces the number of people who could use it. The answer is to provide regular bus service for those who work odd and irregular hours, when traffic on parallel U.S.23 makes it possible to meet schedules reliably.

Third, the lack of connections. Neither Whitmore Lake nor Livingston County have anything like a bus service to get poeple to the stations. Regions where commuter trains operate with full loads have a combination of park-and-ride lots and buses that get people to the stations. Buses make it reasonable for a family to have only one car (or *gasp* none at all, if they live close enough to stores, etc.).

If supplementary and connecting bus service is offered as part of a "package" along with Wally, it stands a much better chance of being accepted by voters. Sure, it would cost more! But it would deliver meaningful benefits to many more people - maybe even enough to pass a millage.

How this "package" is put together is the next step we need to be working on.


For an overview of the presentation:
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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Connections, Connections, Connectons!

You're probably familiar with the real estate proverb: "It's about location, location, location". In public transportation, it's all about "connections, connections, connections".

We're happy to learn that Amtrak and Indian Trails (Michigan's preeminent rural provider of transportation connections) announced on February 17 that Indian Trails will connect with Wolverine service trains.

For several years, we've been hearing that Central Michigan University (CMU) in Mt. Pleasant has been eager for better ways to get to and from campus for their students - especially the international ones who very seldom have access to personal automobiles.

So what would a CMU student do if they wanted to leave the vast flatlands of Isabella County and head for the bright lights?

A quick check of the Amtrak on-line ticketing service revealed that neither "Mt. Pleasant" nor "Mount Pleasant" are listed in Michigan. (Mount Pleasant, Iowa, is listed). Perhaps Amtrak's Media Center is a bit faster than their database folks. Possibly a phone call to 1-800-USA-RAIL would produce tickets.

Anyway, one of the challenges in the past when we've tried to get Amtrak and Indian Trails to link up has been the timing of the connections. This time around, two of the possible four connections are quite convenient. I've plotted out four trips below: from Mt. Pleasant to Chicago and back, and to Ann Arbor and back. None is amazingly swift, but the return trips to Mt. Pleasant both involve long periods cooling your heels.

The Amtrak schedule (which you can download in PDF format from Amtrak's site) does not reveal that these schedules include a change of buses in Lansing. On the way south, there's a 30-minute layover on the schedule, but we all know that reality often lags behind schedules, so 30 minutes is about the shortest safe time for a layover. OK.

On the way back north, the layover is 1:50 - nearly two hours. This is in early afternoon at the combined Greyhound/CATA terminal in downtown Lansing, a perfect time to stroll over to a nearby restaurant for lunch (and there are several). That may be OK for people who know Lansing and can walk 2-3 blocks, but there will probably be a lot of people unfamiliar with the town or unable to walk that far. Not good.

At about seven or eight hours to Chicago, it's two or three hours longer than driving, but probably worth the trip for many.

But Ann Arbor? Six hours getting to Ann Arbor is three times as long as it takes to drive. And the return from Ann Arbor, Detroit, and the rest of Southeast Michigan is mind-numbing: nearly ten hours from A2, over three of which must be spent waiting in Battle Creek for the eastbound Indian Trails bus, and another two are spent in Lansing waiting for the northbound bus. This connection is definitely not a winner.

Here are the schedules. I've highlighted the layover times in green if they're less than an hour, and in pink if they are longer.

Getting Out Amtrak Number Time of Day Travel or Wait Time Total Time
To Ann Arbor
Mt. Pleasant 8855 4:30 PM
Lansing Ar 8855 5:50 PM 1:20 01:20
Lansing Dp 8833 6:20 PM 0:30 01:50
Kalamazoo Ar 8833 8:40 PM 2:20 04:10
Kalamazoo Dp 354 9:10 PM 0:30 04:40
Ann Arbor 354 11:20 PM 2:10 06:50
To Chicago
Mt. Pleasant 8855 4:30 PM
Lansing Ar 8855 5:50 PM 1:20 01:20
Lansing Dp 8833 6:20 PM 0:30 01:50
Kalamazoo Ar 8833 8:40 PM 2:20 04:10
Kalamazoo Dp 355 9:25 PM 0:45 04:55
Chicago 355 10:56 PM 0:49 07:26

Getting Back Amtrak # Time of Day Travel or Wait Time Total Time
From Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor 351 7:24 AM
Battle Creek Ar 351 9:01 AM 1:37 01:37
Battle Creek Dp 8614 12:01 PM 3:00 04:37
Lansing Ar 8614 1:05 PM 1:04 05:41
Lansing Dp 8650 2:55 PM 1:50 07:31
Mt. Pleasant 8650 4:20 PM 1:25 08:56
From Chicago
Chicago 350 7:20 AM
Battle Creek Ar 350 11:24 AM 4:04 04:04
Battle Creek Dp 8614 12:01 PM 0:37 04:41
Lansing Ar 8614 1:05 PM 1:04 05:45
Lansing Dp 8650 2:55 PM 1:50 07:35
Mt. Pleasant 8650 4:20 PM 1:25 09:00