Thursday, August 11, 2011

Is WALLY Dead?

At Tuesday's meeting of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority's Planning and Development Committee there was a short but intense discussion of WALLY, the WAshtenaw-LIvingston commuter rail proposal.

You see, about $190K has been budgeted for station architecture, but not spent this year. Should it remain in the budget for next year? The money has come from several sources, including Washtenaw County, the City of Howell, and AATA itself. The question came up when Board Member David Nacht questioned whether it was responsible to pay architects to design stations if the chances of trains running was practically nil.

Mr. Nacht is doing his job in a responsible way. His point is that spending taxpayer money for something that's already doomed is irresponsible, and AATA should either return the money or use it for something more likely to succeed.

AATA staff members pointed out that money has already been spent for WALLY line track upgrades, signal systems, grade crossing adjustments, refurbishing rail cars, and environmental studies. Why kill the project now?

The answer - which is well taken - was that operating funds haven't been identified, so even if all the preparations are made, how can we run trains without enough money? Without Livingston County's support for WALLY, the trains just won't run anyway.

Good points, but not insuperable. If it had been easy, we would have done it already. Although I respect Mr. Nacht for trying to be a good steward of taxpayer money, cutting off funding for WALLY is not responsible for two reasons...

1. Money already invested

A lot of money has been invested in WALLY already. If the $190K is given back, it will effectively kill WALLY. The point is not that the architecture of stations is essential to get WALLY going. The service can start, if necessary, using concrete slabs and bus shelters. But AATA has been the leading agency for WALLY, and refusing to spend money on it would send a powerful message that it's a dead duck.

Mr. Nacht's question is, "Aren't we just throwing good money after bad?" If the death of WALLY was a sure thing, I suppose he'd be right. But it's not a sure thing unless AATA kills it. More on that later...

Another reasonable question of Mr. Nacht's: "Can't the track be used for freight and the rail cars for other purposes?" Yes, but the freight business run by Great Lakes Central Railroad was doing fine before the tracks were upgraded. MDOT, which provided the money for the upgrades, did it specifically for passenger service. Its purpose was to reduce congestion on parallel US 23 during peak travel times. It directed the money to rail rather than highway because adding lanes to US 23 would be far, far more expensive. And yes, the rail cars could be used on the Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter line when/if it starts, but there is another set of cars refurbished for that purpose. If WALLY doesn't use the cars intended for it, the money will have been spent for resources that won't be used.

In short, by saving $190K, several million will have been spent needlessly. I call this penny-wise but pound-foolish.

2. Future money lost

By refusing to continue with AATA's funding for WALLY, we-the-taxpayers will lose out on a great deal of money we could be getting. Some of this is Federal and State transportation money, but even more is private investment that will go elsewhere

Yes, WALLY is public transportation and is eligible for Federal and State funds. Both Federal and State treasuries are tight, and likely to get even tighter. But what money is available will go elsewhere if give up hope now.

Moreover, the primary reason for WALLY (in my view, at least) is not to relieve congestion on US 23, helpful as that would be. It's to provide an economic incentive for investment in compact, transit-oriented development in Southeast Michigan. That's a goal worth a lot of effort, because without it we'll lose not only money, but one chance for a future with hope of sustainability. Our children and grandchildren will find themselves in a region whose developement is choked by high transportation costs and low potential for growth. Those who can, will leave the area to those who can't. It's what I'm working to prevent.

The wall, the chicken, and the egg

Mr. Nacht is afraid continuing efforts on WALLY is like driving full-speed into a concrete wall. I know from my study of rail transit growth that it's a wall of mist. Forgive me for saying it again: it's normal for rail initiatives to face opposition and for people to think it will never work. But the opposition is more a wall of mist than of concrete. When nay-sayers see the benefits and decide to invest time and money in the project, it works. Or at least, if they stand back with a wait-and-see attitude, once it gets going the rail line proves itself worthy of continued funding.

The wall is not simply nay-sayers, but a lack of obvious funds to run the trains with. Nobody "knows" where the money will come from. That doesn't mean there isn't money to do it with. Remember that 76% of people polled for AATA's Transit Master Plan said they wanted the Smart Growth plan - the plan requiring the highest level of citizen funding. WALLY is part of that plan, and though it won't serve everyone, it is part of the package people say they want. Out of the entire Smart Growth plan, it's only a small part, requiring a modest proportion of any funds raised through millages. For the last several months we've heard Tea Party legislators talking about "the will of the American people" being to cut back on everything. I honestly don't believe it. Some Americans, sure. Not all of us. Paying for something that will benefit our local economy is far different from sending money off to Washington with no say in how it's spent.

Michael Benham compared finding the funding to a chicken-and-egg process. Without operating funds, why should we build it? But without building it, how can we operate it? Clearly we have to start by building it. I'd rather see us being the egg, not the chicken - in the sense of "chickening out".

If we don't invest in Southeast Michigan, nobody else will. Let's do it.

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