Monday, May 11, 2009

The Need: Dire.
The Great Opportunity: Rail.

We had a Town Hall Meeting, organized by State Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-Washtenaw) to talk about transportation. Rep. Byrnes assembled a panel of three to tell us about the current situation and what we're looking at in the near future.

The panel:

  • Terri Blackmore, Executive Director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study

  • Ronald K. DeCook, Director of the Office of Governmental Affairs, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT)

  • Mark Schauer, U. S. Representative for the 7th District of Michigan, which includes western Washtenaw and Jackson.

There's good news and bad news. Let's start with the bad.

Doom and Gloom

Terri started out explaining how short of money we are for even maintaining our roads, let alone paving or widening anything. Michigan won't have enough money to match the Federal highway funds that will be available in 2011. For every dollar Michigan residents pay in Federal gasoline tax, we now get 92 cents back. In 2011 – unless we do something to raise more money – we'll get much less.

Big graphs and a map provided by the Washtenaw County Road Commission showed the condition of our roads. I'm going to skip the fancy graphs and just give you the figures:

Roads Eligible for Federal Funds

Other roads*





























* This table is changed from the original posting; Terri Blackmore explained the difference to me, and I think this is a clearer way to explain it.

OK, so by the most liberal standard, we have 520 miles of roads in“Poor” condition. If you live here, you know exactly what that means. Of those “poor” roads, how many miles can the county afford to repair?

Next fiscal year, we can afford to repair 90 miles.

Is this system broken, or what? Is this the United States, or Haiti? Folks, we've got to invest in our community! We've got to spend some money on our own state, if we expect anyone to move here and start a business. What this says is, we don't believe in ourselves.

A Ray of Hope

Ron DeCook next took us through the TF2 Bill Request. That's the legislation recommended by the Transportation Funding Task Force. I'm not going to go into the details. If you're interested, go to the MDOTsite and download one or more of the PDFs. Here are some highlights:

  • They're recommending that we ask the legislature for a “good” transportation funding system. They also spec'd out a “better” funding system, which they don't think is realistic to ask for, given the economic climate. They didn't even spec out what might be considered “the best” system, which they thought was a waste of time to even think about in Michigan. (After all, Michigan funding for transportation – including highways, marine, air, rail, and transit – ranks 47th out of the 50 states. What can we expect?)

  • Revenue will be increased gradually over the next five years. The current system of gas taxes will be changed so that rather than basing it on the number of gallons sold, it will be based on wholesale price – but the system is complicated, and includes a cap of the equivalent of 34 cents per gallon, and a provision never to drop, even if the wholesale price falls.

  • In addition to gasoline, registration fees (license plates) will gradually move up over the next few years. Counties that vote for it can add a fee to driver licenses which they can use to fund transit.

  • Truck and aviation fuel taxes will also be increased. Amazing fact: the tax on aviation fuel is 3 cents per gallon. That was determined in 1926, when it was 10% of the cost. It has never been raised.

  • Only 9.2% of the revenues will be dedicated to transit, rail, light rail, etc. Apparently the Michigan constitution prohibits more than 10% of gas tax money from being spent on transit, but not even that much has been allocated since 1997. I feel strongly that 9.2% is not enough. Sure, we need to repair our raods, but we've been neglecting public transportation even more. With climate change and peak oil breathing down our necks, we need to make a bigger effort than that.

  • Public-Private Partnership (PPP) is an important part of the new plan. This includes public-private operation of roads – that is, making some highways tollways and having a private company responsible for operating and maintaining them. The company would be answerable to a publicly appointed board of directors.

  • A pot of $50M would be available to help start new transit projects.

  • Tax Increment Funding (TIF) would be made available. This is a system used in many other states to capture the great increase in property value that comes with rail transit, and use the added value to help fund the transit itself.

  • Grants would be administered so as to encourage regional cooperation – something sorely needed in Michigan.

So those are the recommendations. They have to pass the State House andSenate. I asked what the bipartisan support was likely to be, and Rep. Byrnes said it was mainly there. There were members of both parties on the Task Force. I've heard the Chamber of Commerce is backing it. There are very few opponents, but unfortunately they are in very high positions in the Senate. So we need to push.

What can we do to help? Ron: if you see negative articles or letters in your newspaper, ANSWER THEM! Explain the need for basic transportation infrastructure. Make constructive suggestions. And I would add, check the on-line news and blogs. Comment on them, too.Terri: Support Partners in Transit, the soon-to-be-official campaign to fund a county-wide transit system in Washtenaw.

The Great Opportunity

The notice inviting people to this meeting said it was all about fixing roads and bridges. We sure need that, but if you've been following this blog, you know I'm not likely to be satisfied without transportation alternatives. I was all set to stand up and shout (well, in a polite, well-moderated way). I didn't need to.

Pam Byrnes stood up to welcome us, and said we need transit to be economically competitive. Terri Blackmore stood up and said we can't have roads that work well without transit that works better, to relieve congestion. Ron DeCook stood up and said the public surveys had taken MDOT aback: young and old alike were clamoring for transit. Mark Schauer stood up and said getting high-speed rail for Michigan is the greatest opportunity for recovery, and the most important thing he can do for the citizens he represents is to bring high-speed rail from Chicago to Detroit.

Rep. Schauer would like to put a train in service that goes from downtown Chicago to downtown Detroit in 3 hours. With this, he issued a challenge: can you demonstrate any other way to get from downtown to downtown that fast?

Now I've got to reflect on that a bit. Can we do it in a train?

To run those 281 miles in three hours, the average speed would need to be 93.7 MPH. I believe that's doable on the existing right-of-way, based on the numbers I've crunched using Japanese non-bullet-train schedules. But it would not be easy. Here are some things that need to be done:

  • Amtrak or the State of Michigan would have to own and dispatch the track from the state line to the Detroit station. Otherwise, freight traffic will get in the way and make schedules unreliable.

  • Serious work would have to be done in northern Indiana to relieve rail congestion. (Everybody concerned is well aware of this.)

  • Of course, the rails, crossing lights, and signal system would have to be upgraded to the level they are now between Kalamazoo and the Indiana line – pretty expensive, but not impossible, and Amtrak knows how to do it.

  • The roadbed and rails would have to be upgraded: cleaning and re-leveling the gravel ballast under the tracks, putting in new ties – perhaps concrete rather than wood, and of probably new rail.

  • Existing trains would not be able to do it, so new trainsets would have to be made to order.

Let me explain that last . Amtrak has been using the rail line between Kalamazoo and the Indiana state line as a test-bed for moderately high-speed trains in the Midwest. The target speed is 110 MPH, and to make it safe, they have installed special signals at grade crossings, and Positive Train Control (PTC) in the locomotives and track. The locomotives now in use, the General Electric P42 “Genesis” model,is rated for a top speed of 110 MPH. Gradually and quietly, Amtrak has been increasing the speed, careful to make sure all the crossing signals work right and the PTC system works reliably. When I rode the line with my GPS a couple of years ago, they were already running at 90.

I suspect Amtrak is now reached 110. Last Sunday, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman rode from Chicago to Kalamazoo in Amtrak's executive railcar, attached to a regularly scheduled train. I have a guess he wanted to be among the first to travel on the line at 110. Just a guess.

So if the trains already run at 110, why would new trainsets be needed to get from Chicago to Detroit in 3 hours?

  1. The track from Kalamazoo to the Indiana line has lots of long, straight stretches. East of Kalamazoo, there are a lot more curves on the line. The trains have to slow down to negotiate the curves comfortably, and wouldn't be able to achieve the needed 93.7 MPH average. But there's a solution: trains that tilt can go through curves much faster than those that don't. Many modern trains designed to run on curving lines have an “active tilt” system. They are quite common in Europe, Japan, Australia, and other places, but the only one in the US is the Acela. To achieve an average of 93.7 MPH, the trains would need to tilt.

  2. Running between Chicago and Detroit without stopping is an option, but not a practical one. On current Amtrak service, it's the stations between Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo that have the most boardings (Ann Arbor has the most). But with the current cars, an Amtrak conductor has to open the door and stairway, put out a step-stool, and help people up and down some pretty steep steps. Only two doors can be open at any station because that's how many conductors are in the passenger cars. This means the train has to stop for a long time at each station, bringing the average speed down. California solved that problem with their San Joaquin and Capital Corridor trains by having doors are the same level as the platform (which also makes them ADA-compliant) and having all doors open automatically, under the control of one conductor. That way, the station stops take only 1-2 minutes, rather than the 5-10 needed with the current equipment.

  3. The cars used now are 30-40 years old. Amtrak hasn't had the money to replace them, and even repairing ones with serious problems has been a challenge. But in order to run in 3 hours between Detroit and Chicago, you need reliable equipment. Not much sense having trains that can do the 3-hour run, if they're broken down half the time.

OK. End of reflection.

Bottom Line

Congressman Schauer tells us the vision for transportation – in the House Transportation Committee, on which he serves, and in the White House – is for an integrated, intermodal system, a holistic solution involving roads, rail, air, and water. It is to be a system that takes into account the seriousness of climate change, the high cost of congestion, and the coming high cost of energy. It is to be a system that provides livability, BUT streamlines that complex funding process, which more often than not slows down progress.

I left the Town Hall Meeting feeling optimistic.


  1. You've done a nice job summarizing the meeting. One point of clarification is that the two charts were federal-aid and non federal-aid roads rather than federal and non-federal standards. This is based on the National Functional Classification. If interested, you can find out information about the NFC here

    Many shared your optimism following the meeting!WATS

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Terri. I've changed the table headers to make it clearer (I hope!).