Wednesday, April 22, 2009

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!

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