Monday, April 27, 2009

WALLY! Jackson!


Today (April 27) saw a meeting of the Washtenaw-Livingston "WALLY" commuter rail initiative. Interesting. It was packed - except for me and one other self-identified "interested citizen" - pretty much with "VIPs". Mayors, a state representative, councilmen, presidents of companies, heads of transportation agencies, even the Federal Railroad Administration sent two reps. I won't list anyone's name for fear of leaving someone out. Trust me, it was impressive.

As you may know, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has agreed to take charge of the Wally project, shepherding it through its development phase and fielding federal and state transit dollars to pay for it. Tom Cornillie is the point man, doing a great job for AATA. The major step forward right now is getting two public relations firms on board: one to do input (community survey), the other output (publicity). Ilium Associates, the "input" company, has done work to support rail startups in Seattle, San Diego, Miami, Spokane, and several other places. Bob Prowda, Exec VP, is their representative. The "output" company, The Rossman Group, is a Lansing PR firm that has done a lot of local work in Michigan. Appropriately, Mark Pischea, President, worked with the Michigan Republican Party - he can focus on Livingston County - and Josh Hovey, Senior Account Exec, is a Democrat, so he can represent the firm in Washtenaw. Looks like a really good team.

What about stimulus funds? Well, maybe. According to Terri Blackmore of WATS, there's a $1.5 billion pot of money to be divided around the nation, and WALLY is probably eligible for some of it. (Crumbs, is my guess.) We won't know if we'll get any of it until the end of September, and we can't even apply until the application and eligibility rules come out May 18. Stay tuned.

A couple of other pieces of good news: Beck Development, which owns a generous pie-slice of land between Eight Mile Road and the track, west of Whitmore Lake, has begun demolition of the old Hoover-Universal / King-Sealy factory. That will make way for some kind of transit-oriented development and a park-and-ride lot, potentially a parking deck if there's demand for one. Here's a photo from my cell camera of the demolition operation.

Howell has also gotten on board with a downtown plan that incorporates the station. I hope to get more details on their plans and Beck's soon, and pass them along to you.

Finally, a big pat on the back to Great Lakes Central Railroad, lessors of the track. (The track belongs to the State, under MDOT.) Lou Ferris, CEO of parent Federated Capital, was at the meeting along with Mike Bagwell, President of GLC and several GLC staff members. It's because of Ferris's vision of restored passenger service north-south in Michigan that Federated is leasing the line and running trains on it, and that WALLY is advancing so fast. Now, if only the Ann Arbor Railroad... And it's because of Bagwell and the staff that GLC's operation is doing well. I caught this picture with my cell phone camera of a GLC doing good, old-fashioned, manual maintenance of way, which is at the heart of running a good railway. They're just north of the future Whitmore Lake station, at the Eight Mile crossing. Good work, guys, all of you!

Jackson Citizens for Economic Growth

They may not have Ann Arbor Spark, but look out for Jackson! They're eager to get their city back up and running, and two-year-old Jackson Citizens for Economic Growth (JCEG) is kicking it! They are totally pushing for the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail project (managed by SEMCOG) to come out to Jackson.

So they brought Rick Harnish, of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association advocacy group (of which I've been a proud member for several years) in from Chicago (on the train, of course!) to discuss the benefits of high speed rail for Jackson tonight. His message is not new to me, so if you're curious, visit his Web site.

One audience member asked why we're proposing to invest in "yesterday's technology" (rail) instead of monorail or maglev, and the answer was interesting. It involves the physics of rail, monorail, and maglev, but the short answer is that two steel rails on transverse ties can carry more weight at less cost than either other system. Monorails are particularly limited in weight, and meglevs are incredibly expensive. The only maglev in scheduled operation is in Shanghai, and the Chinese Government, who built it based on a German plan, isn't discussing how much it cost.

The highlight for me was the contrast between one young man in the audience, who said in effect, "Michigan is dying, so what good will a train do?", and the young people of Question, a JCEG group for those 19-40 who want to make a difference. The Question people are enthusiastic, energetic, articulate, and confident (as well as extremely good-looking!). They are not willing to wait for the older generation to "do something". They really give me hope, not only for Jackson, but for the rest of Michigan.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

AATA: At the Top

AATA Board Meeting, 2009-04-22

At tonight's Ann Arbor Transportation Board meeting, two issues stood out. One can be dealt with quickly: the auditor's report confirms that AATA's 2008 financial records and processes were good. $28.6 M is in T-bills (safe, but at very low interest) to be cashed in for operating funds through July, after which next year's Ann Arbor millage is expected (predicted to be 1.2% lower than last year's). For day-to-day expenses, about $831K are in various bank accounts, distributed so that they are all (mainly) covered by FDIC's $250K insurance.

OK. The fun part was discussing the finalist for AATA's vacant CEO (Executive Director) position. And the finalist is (drum rolllllllllllllll) Mr. Michael Ford, with whom the Board will enter into negotiations to finalize terms. So what kind of a person is Mr. Ford?

Well, anyone would be forgiven for mistaking him at first glance for Paul Ajegba, AATA Board Treasurer. Both are tall, black, football- or basket-ball player types with strong, handsome facial features and nearly identical shaved, (polished?) pates. Maybe Ajegba is more the basketball type, and Ford the footballer; I'd love to have them stand together for a picture - they could easily pass for brothers.

Now, enough of this superficial stuff. Michael Ford comes to us from the San Joaquin (Stockton, California) Regional Transit District (which happens to have many of the same model hybrid buses as does AATA). Ford was Chief Operating Officer there, and came to us highly recommended by his CEO. They have implemented a popular BRT-like service, on which stops are limited, tickets are purchased in advance, and traffic lights give them priority when they are late. (This lacks many features of a true BRT system, and is more like the proposed Detroit area "ART", Advanced Rapid Transit.)

Before serving the San Joaquin RTD, Ford held the position of Executive Advisor to the General Manager of TriMet, the Portland, Oregon area transit agency. That agency runs both light rail and streetcar systems, giving Ford rail experience which will be very valuable as AATA presses forward with commuter rail. While in Portland, he served on the Board of United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, and was active in working with transportation needs of the elderly and disabled community.

Stockton, with an estimated 375,426 inhabitants and 685,660 in the metro area, is considerably larger than Ann Arbor (283,904) and Washtenaw County (322,895) [all 2008 estimates]. Stockton experienced very rapid growth in the 1990s and early 2000s, but when the housing bubble burst, it crashed spectacularly. In 2008, housing prices fell a heart-stopping 39%, foreclosures reached 9.5%, and unemployment stood at 13.3%. Well, we do have it bad in Michigan, but I have to admit - grudgingly - that San Joaquin County has it worse.

However, their loss is our gain. Michael Ford is both a transit expert and an accomplished people-person, according to his former CEO and the AATA Board's interview report.

  • He's a good listener, and not on an ego-trip.
  • Although his answers to some interview questions lacked the "crispness" Board member Ted Annis would have liked, he satisfactorily covered all the issues raised, by the end of the interview.
  • Rich Robben was impressed by the answer to his question, apparently "How would you deal with a management subordinate who is not performing up to expectation?". Instead of dealing with his response to the individual's performance, Ford talked about making sure each individual is in a position that's aligned with the goals of the organization - a more holistic approach.
  • Chair Nacht was impressed by Ford's polite persistence on the rail issue. When asked repeatedly what he (Ford) would do if the commuter rail project fell through, Ford insisted he would keep trying until it was successful.

It's good to have someone who's worked with rail transit systems: he knows first-hand how popular they become, and how successful they are as engines of local economic development.

All in all, a good choice. I hope we'll soon be able to welcome Michael Ford officially to AATA.

Legislators and Transit, Lansing and Ann Arbor

Yesterday, April 21, several transit advocacy groups got together and had a rally at the State Capitol. Very well organized, we were given pointers on how to communicate effectively with legislators, grouped by county or region from all over Michigan, and shared box lunches with some of our legislators.

Naturally, I sat with other folks from Washtenaw County, mostly advocates for disability services. They're a very well informed group of people, and shared a lot of experience with me. (Thank you, especially Carolyn and LuAnne!)

Washtenaw County legislators in both houses are solidly behind transit, so our role was to encourage rather than persuade. ("Preaching to the choir" is how one of them put it, but it really helps legislators to know their constituents are backing them.) We spread the word about how desperately Michigan needs to reform the way we pay for transportation, as the state doesn't have enough money even to match our available Federal highway grants next year, and so stands to lose more of the money we pay in Federal taxes. Some figures of interest:

  • For every dollar Michiganders pay in Federal Gas Tax, we currently get about 92 cents back in Federal matching funds, making us a "net donor state".
  • The average expenditure on transportation among US states is about $184 per person, while Michigan spends only about $75 per person. (These figures are approximate, but in the ballpark.)

AATA Planning and Development Committee

The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority's Planning and Development Committee (PDC) met last night also. Carmine Palombo of SEMCOG updated us on the AA-Detroit commuter project. The starting date for service is still October 25, 2010, but before that, the plan is to get a train together to do demonstrations, raise public awareness, test the route, and train operators. One way to raise awareness ahead of the launch would be to run a special train to bring spectators to Ann Arbor for one or more football games, but of course there are a few hurdles to jump before that can be arranged. (Trains on the East-West line cannot access the North-South line that goes past Michigan Stadium, so direct service wouldn't be available. Buses would have to be marshaled to take spectators between the Amtrak station and Michigan Stadium.)

Michigan Department of Transportation will be the responsible authority when the line starts up, but a regional authority would be preferable, and when the dust settles a bit, such an authority will be put together.

Ridership has been estimated conservatively at 600 to 1000 daily trips, given the initial four round-trips planned for starters on weekdays, and three on weekends. (If we were applying for federal funds now, we would be required to make a very conservative estimate of ridership. There are specific rules as to how it's done, which we actually can't meet, because it has to be based on current cummuter "ridership". Not having cummuter service now, we couldn't meet federal requirements, and so were denied the use of 100 million federal dollars back in 2006 - remember? That's why we in Michigan has to set up this commuter route on our own.) Anyway, over the last several years, rail commuter services starting up in cities like Albuquerque, Memphis, and Salt Lake City have all exceeded the conservative ridership estimates with which they pulled in federal funds, and since these are areas just as wedded to their automobiles as Michigan (believe it or not!) I have no doubt we'll exceed the estimates, too.

What about funding? Peter Allen, who as at the first part of the meeting, asked what the fare was likely to be. That hasn't been pinned down yet, but the idea is to make fares comparable to commuter rail in other regions. Just to get from Ypsi to AA could be in the neighborhood of $1.50 to $2.00. This wouldn't come near to funding the operating cost, which is expected to be somewhere between $8-12 million each year, so as Mr. Palombo says, SEMCOG is "passing the hat" around local jurisdictions, foundations, and business that would benefit from the service.

One big unknown in the mix is the usage fee we'd have to pay the freight railroads for the privilege of using their tracks. Mr. Palombo says the fees are "not trivial", but negotiations with Canadian National are still under way.

CN owns the north-south track that runs past the Detroit New Center station. Canadian National just emerged victorious - somewhat - after a long, bruising battle with Chicago-area jurisdictions over purchasing the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway (EJ&E), which provides a sort of "beltway" around the west and south of Chicago, badly needed to relieve freight train congestion. The neighborhoods through which it passes, alerted to CN's plan to run many more, and much longer trains over the line than the EJ&E had done, were up in arms, demanding either a prohibition of such traffic, or extensive mitigation. They asked that the Surface Transportation Board in Washington refuse to allow EJ&E to sell to CN, and though the sale eventually went through, the required mitigation measures will be very expensive and time-consuming for the railroad.

So CN must have emerged with a cautious respect for local authorities, but not necessarily much love for them. We'll see how that plays out in SEMCOG's negotiations over their Detroit trackage.

One other wild card in the trackage "deck" is Norfolk-Southern's (NS's) desire to divest itself of the Michigan Central East-West line that runs from Detroit to Chicago. It owns the portion from Detroit to Battle Creek, which it attempted to sell in 2008 to Watco, a company that operates short-line railways in several states. That sale was blocked, largely over concerns that Watco would not maintain the line up to standards needed to run Amtrak trains. NS still wants to drop that line. It owns a line largely parallel and a few miles south, the line that runs past Metro Airport and hits NS's main Philadelphia-Chicago line in Indiana, east of the line Amtrak uses (and owns).

So if NS wants to sell it, who will buy? Possibly MDOT, cash-strapped as it is. If that happens, there would be no usage-fees to pay along the majority of the AA-Detroit route, greatly reducing operating expenses. So that's in the hands of our politicians in Lansing, who, as we know, are as cash-starved as about anyone. Oh, well.f

Also on the PDC's radar: Moving Purchase of Service Agreement (POSA) partners to fully allocated costs by 2012. For years, Ann Arbor residents have paid a 2-mill tax to support AATA. Ypsilanti City, Ypsi Township, and Pittsfield Township, purchase AATA services from their general fund, not from a dedicated source, and don't currently pay the full cost. For some reason ;-) the folks in Ann Arbor have decided these partners need to stop "mooching" off Ann Arbor taxpayers and pay the whole cost of their own service by 2012. The draft plan, though, is to increase the fees in three steps of about 9% per year, so service can be continued without breaking the partners' budgets. We'll see.

Neil Greenberg, a relatively new guy at AATA, filled us in on plans for another express bus route. AATA has been running an experimental express between Chelsea and AA for a year now, and Neil has been applying his dynamic enthusiasm to tracking how that's working out for riders. Apparently it's going OK, with pleased riders telling their friends and getting them on board too, though the service isn't up to capacity yet. The next express route is being planned for Canton Township, and preliminary plans under way to leave from a lot at a Canton Township park.

The discouraging part of this is that several commercial sites refused to permit AATA riders to to park in their lots. I understand this is actually pretty common, and some malls in Oakland and Macomb Counties have canceled SMART bus privileges to bring their buses in. Hopefully malls will soon begin to realize that buses bring business. According to the Michigan Public Transportation Association, "Most people ride the bus either to earn money or to spend money."

There is yet no concrete starting date, but the goal is this summer, so there will be a relatively peaceful period for debugging the service before the intense Fall season begins. Like the Chelsea Express, this one will probably be operated by Indian Trails (which is why you haven't seen AATA buses in Chelsea!).

And what about WALLY, the AA-Howell commuter rail plan? It seems to be moving along as well. Next Monday, April 27, the monthly meeting is scheduled for 10 AM at the Northfield Township Hall, open to the public. A highlight of that meeting will be presentations by two consultants who have helped commuter rail projects get started in Seattle, San Diego, and Memphis, among other places. Their function is mainly to involve the community in getting the service running and keeping it going.

All in all, an exciting day, but stay tuned for more soon!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Progress notes

It's been busy the last few weeks, so there are quite a few things I'd like to let you know about. Mainly, things I picked up at meetings. Not very exciting? You be the judge!

City of Ypsilanti Planning Commission

It was kinda fun going to someone else's planning commission meeting (March 18). This one was so packed that several people were left standing. Why so popular? It was the official SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) presentation of progress on the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail line, and officially the Ypsi Planning Commission needed to have a heads-up about the location of the Ypsilanti station.

There's very little doubt that the station will be in Depot Town, where the original Michigan Central Station was located. The folks who are so lovingly restoring the old freight house (think 19th century UPS center) are offering that noble building for passenger and retail use. I'm encouraged that they're thinking retail, because that's the beginning of TOD.

The Planning Commission, however, seemed more concerned that providing parking for commuters would deprive people coming to special events, like the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival (every summer). Hey, how about asking, "Can we have extra trains to bring people to the Heritage Festival?"

I met many of my counterparts on the Ypsi city Planning Commission, one of whom, Cheryl Zuelig, is also a TOD "believer", and was responsible for my learning about the Urban Land Institute meeting. So...

Urban Land Institute

At the March 19 ULI meeting in Livonia, there were progress reports on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) along the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail route.

  • Hats off to the cities of Birmingham and Troy for being ahead of the curve! Even though the proposed route doesn't *yet* go through their cities, they're ready for when it's extended from Detroit to Pontiac. They've forged an alliance between their jurisdictions, which lie on either side of the tracks. They'll be cooperating on zoning and planning commission approvals, and already have nice plans for spiffing up the current Amtrak station, big-time.
  • Good thinking, Dearborn! They're arranged to move the Amtrak station to a better location, and re-zoned around it for TOD.
  • Come on, Ann Arbor - you can do better! For once, AA is lagging. They're planning to set up a little station across from the University of Michigan Hospital - but it's just a place where people can get on and off the train. No TOD or amenities around it. OK, the hospital is a 10-ton gorilla and doesn't leave space for anyone else there, anyway.

The Ann Arbor decision is actually OK as a temporary measure. The prime location (as I said in the last blog) is the crossing fo the Annie and Michigan Central, about half a mile west of the newly planned station. But that will need to wait until there's meaningful service both east-west and north-south before the location's potential is fully realized, and private investors are willing to pony up and build a high-rise there.

Michigan Association of Planning (MAP)

The spring MAP meeting in Lansing (March 26) featured nationally-known planners Christopher Leinberger and Ian Lockwood. Though I didn't learn anything significantly new, I got to meet planners from around the state, and I was very encouraged by the way the state of Michigan and its planners have been looking to the future. There is a great committment to new urbanism and TOD at the state level.

It was really good to chat briefly with Lockwood and Leinberger, who are quite accessible (once you beat your way through the admiring fans). Bad news: though Leinberger is listed as a University of Michigan professor, he is not actually going to return to Ann Arbor from Washington DC, where he's a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says he's too involved with Transportation for America.

Anya Dale, Washtenaw County Planner

Anya is a dynamic 20-something planner who followed my Wake Up Washtenaw link from a note I'd left on Concentrate Ann Arbor. Her job - and her passion - is creating a magnet for talented people by turning Washtenaw Avenue between AA and Ypsi into a corridor for transit-oriented development.

We sat down over coffee in Espresso Royale on Main Street, and shared our enthusiasm for TOD. What she's proposing is exactly the kind of development I'd love to see on East Michigan Avenue in Ypsi Township (see the March 25 blog entry below). Anya urged me to come to today's meeting of stakeholders, and how could I refuse? But first...

Michigan Municipal League, Zone 1

MML's Zone 1 is southeast Michigan. This meeting (April 3) was attended mainly by mayors and council members, and I had a hard time finding other men who weren't wearing neckties ;-) and also others from Washtenaw County. Conan Smith was there, though. Without a necktie, bless him!

The highlight was the talk by James Corless, Campaign Director of Transportation for America's DC headquarters, telling us about changes we can expect and need to push for at the federal level, to improve our transportation options. Although MML is pro-TOD, there wasn't much about it other than Mr. Corless's talk and Conan Smith's enthusiastic networking with interested people.

Co-Housing at Sunward, Great Oak, and Touchstone

Co-housing is a movement that started in Europe (apparently Denmark) about 30 years ago. The goal is to make more rational use of resources by sharing them, and encouraging community interaction and cooperation. I read about the three Ann Arbor co-housing communities in Concentrate Ann Arbor (again...useful publication!).

So I went out to their Sunday afternoon group tour and found myself in a group of one, giving me the chance to focus on the kinds of questions I thought Wake Up Washtenaw should know the answers to.

You see, they designed the communities themselves, and were their own developers. I wanted to know what lessons we could benefit from, plus I wondered if any of them might be interested in taking part in developing a new sustainable community, the "greenfield" community I've been blogging about (January 19). Nick Meima, the champion of Sunward since 1994, was very helpful and frank. The very first lesson? Stop talking and get something done! Excellent idea! We'll have to get together and talk about it. ;-)

Washtenaw Avenue Talent Center

This was Anya Dale's first big meeting on TOD for Washtenaw Avenue. We met at Pittsfield Township's lovely new administrative center, and had people from about twenty different organizations, including at least three of the four jurisdictions through which Washtenaw Ave. passes (I think AA was missing), but also AATA, MDOT, Chamber of Commerce, WATS, several developers, even the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. Not to mention Wake Up Washtenaw. :-)

The tenor was generally enthusiastic and up-beat, with the emphasis on getting ideas from the group on how to go about making the necessary changes in transportation, zoning, marketing, and legislation. Lots of jumbo sticky-notes were issued, written on, stuck up on walls, re-arranged, and now have to be typed up by Anya and her helper.

In spite of the enthusiasm, there was an underlying current of pessimism, perhaps best voiced by Newcombe Clark, Publisher of Concentrate Ann Arbor (that useful e-zine again!). To paraphrase: Michigan's population is shrinking, so we can't expect to have people really build anything new on Washtenaw. Let's get real! We'd need a veritable "sea change" (his words) to make this work. It was actually a very good point. He's a partner in a real estate firm, and there aren't many realtors who feel optimistic these days.

Well, I rose to the bait like the sucker I am. (At least I wasn't the only one.) I was glad he used the word "sea change", because that's exactly what we should expect. As global warming raises sea level, Michigan will become a much more desireable place to live. All those Michiganders who fled to Florida will be back in the next few decades. Climate change is also expected to make the US southwest hotter and more arid, and Michigan just a little wetter and warmer, so the Michiganders who escaped to Arizona will be back, too. Let's get ready for them.

I could go on, but I'll spare you.

All in all, an excellent meeting. Wake Up Washtenaw is getting a higher profile, so let's keep moving!