Friday, May 27, 2011

What's Wrong with Michigan?

Back in July last year a really revealing letter started appearing in the blogosphere. Sorry I didn't spot it earlier and bring it to your attention! It's about what's wrong with Michigan, and it's interesting because (a) it's from a business man - a lawyer, actually; and (b) he's not just griping, he's aching to find a solution. He sent this letter (essay, really) to Michigan Future, Lou Glazer's outfit that I've mentioned more than once before.

I'm going to give you a few excerpts to whet your appetite, and send you off to read the whole thing. So here are the quotes:

We’d like to stay in Michigan, but we have a problem. It’s not taxes or regulations. There’s lots of talk about these issues but they have no impact on our business. We spend more on copiers and toner than we do on state taxes. Our problem is access to talent. We have high-paying positions open for patent attorneys in the software and semiconductor space. Even though it is one of the best hiring environments for IP firms in 40 years, we cannot fill these positions. Most qualified candidates live out of state and simply will not move here, even though they are willing to relocate to other cities. Our recruiters are very blunt. They say it is almost impossible to recruit to Michigan without paying big premiums above competitive salaries on the coasts. ...
The fundamental problem it seems to me is that our region [h]as gone berserk on suburbia to the expense of having any type of nearby open space or viable urban communities, which are the two primary spatial assets that attract and retain the best human capital.
...But despite our talents and resources, the region's problem of place may be intractable for one simple, sorry reason: our political and business leadership does not view poor quality of place as a problem and certainly lacks motivation to address the issue.
...The attitude of many in our region is that our problems are confined to Detroit city while the suburbs are thought to be lovely. We don’t have a perception problem, we have a reality problem. Most young, highly talented knowledge workers from places like Seattle or San Francisco or Chicago find the even the upper end suburbs of Metro Detroit to be unappealing. ...
Things are spread too far apart. You have to drive everywhere. There’s no mass transit.

Oh - and be sure to look at the two maps he's got in the letter.

Why our growing firm may have to leave Michigan.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Quick Summary: Federal Funding Awards for High Speed Rail Projects in Michigan

How much money has Michigan received lately for high speed rail? John Langdon, Governmental / Public Affairs Coordinator for the Michigan Association of Rail Passengers (MARP) put together this handy chart from Federal and State sources, which I'm passing along to you (thanks, John!):

Selection Date
Project Name Project Summary Federal "Track" Grant Amount State/Local Contribution
Battle Creek Station
ARRA Round 1
  Renovation of the station building and passenger services facilities at the Battle Creek, MI Amtrak Station.    
Troy Station
ARRA Round 1
  Construction of a new platform and passenger services facilities at the Troy, MI Amtrak Station.    
Dearborn Station
ARRA Round 1
  Construction of a new station building, platform, and passenger services facilities at a relocated new Amtrak Station in Dearborn, MI.    
2010-10-28 Chicago –
Detroit HSR Corridor Plan
FRA (HSIPR) Program FY10 & Remaining FY 09 (80/20)

(split between MI, IL, IN, NS)
  Corridor Investment Plan includes completion of a Service Development Plan and corridor environmental study for the Chicago Hub (Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac) High-Speed Rail Corridor    
West Detroit Rail Improvements
FRA (HSIPR) Program FY10 & Remaining FY 09

$7,912,773 FRA, $1,475,893 FTA
  Installation of centralized traffic control signals, construction of 1.34 miles of new connection track on existing and previously abandoned railroad property, replacement of the bridge over Junction Avenue, relocation of approximately 0.86 track miles of existing CSAO tracks, and construction of 5 new cross overs and a service drive.    
Ann Arbor Station
FL Redirect
(City of Ann Arbor Funds)
  This project is for the completion of preliminary engineering and environmental documentation required for future design and construction a new high-speed rail station in Ann Arbor, MI to serve the Chicago -Detroit/Pontiac high speed rail corridor. The old Ann Arbor station is currently the busiest Amtrak station in Michigan, but it is located on single-track territory without passing sidings, which forces intercity trains to stop and block the mainline while serving the station. Plans include construction of passing track that will allow passenger trains to meet and for more than one train to serve the station at a time, thereby increasing on-time performance and service reliability on the corridor. The station will also incorporate automobile, pedestrian, transit, and intercity bus connectivity.    
Kalamazoo – Dearborn Service Development (110 mph)
FL Redirect
  This project will rehabilitate track and signal systems that will allow trains to travel at 110 mph for 135 miles resulting in a 30 minute reduction in trip time. The work funded in this project will replace ties, track, ballast, and highway crossings to a state of good repair on the line segment between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. It will also replace the current obsolete signal system with a positive train control (PTC) system. Together, these investments will result in improvements in trip time, average speed and top speed, and reduction in delay minutes.    

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

AATA Updates: Rail and East County

Here's the latest on commuter rail for Washtenaw County, from the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority's Planning and Development Committee (PDC):

  • Nov 11, 2013, is the new tentative starting date for excursion trains on the Ann Arbor-Detroit route. Of course, this is contingent on other things. Nobody specified what "other things" this might be contingent on, but my guess is probably the same as yours... Nobody had to mention the connection, but no funding has been committed for operating the trains.
  • Wally has no starting date in the works, but they to have a station specifications ready; and put out requests for design proposals (RFPs) 3 weeks ago.
Activity in the eastern part of the county got Board Member David Nacht quite enthusiastic at the PDC meeting. He reacted very positively to news about expanded Night Ride service.

Night Ride is actually taxi service subsidized and dispatched by AATA during evening hours that aren't served by fixed-route buses. Since it is largely funded by the city of Ann Arbor, it has (in the past) been run only in the city limits. But the Board of Directors recently approved a test expansion of service about a mile east, to Golfside Road, beginning April 1 (no fooling!). The result? Fully 22% of Night Ride calls either began or ended in the newly served area. Mr. Nacht said he had never known any new service to increase so rapidly in its first month. What can we do, he asked, to improve service in that hgh-demand area?

Well, there are a number of possibilities, some which may fall into the category of "cockamamie ideas", as Michael Benham jokingly put it. What do you think of these suggestions?

  • Right now, AATA's CEO Michael Ford is in discussions with McKinley Properties, owner of Glencoe Crossing shopping center, about using their parking lot as an "official" AATA park-and-ride site. McKinley is reasonably receptive to the idea, but hopes soon to expand businesses in the area adjacent to the Ichiban restaurant, which may require moving the park-and-ride to another location within the shopping center.
  • Put a station on the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail (whenever it starts) at Dixboro Road, either instead of or in addition to the stop at Ypsilanti. This could be connected by a direct bus to Washtenaw Community College, St. Joseph Hospital, the many apartments of Golfside Rd., and buses on Washtenaw Ave.
  • Currently routes 4, 7, and 22 pass Glencoe Crossing (route 22 by back-tracking about a quarter mile from Carpenter Road). What about making Glencoe Crossing a more important transfer point by bringing other bus routes there?
  • Can we see if St. Joe and WCC would be willing to pay for shuttle service between their campuses and transit, on either Washtenaw or the railway?
  • How about encouraging public-private partnership to develop station-area businesses in conjunction with an enhanced transit?

Do these sound like "cockamamie ideas" to you? Well, they may not all be equally practical, but it's great to hear Board members so enthusiastic and full of ideas. Mr. Nacht commented after the meeting that in his nine or ten years on the Board, he had never encountered so many esxciting things in the transit world happening at once.

One other east-side service that's coming up soon: Ann Arbor to Detroit Metro Airport, a project spearheaded by AATA's Dawn Gabay. As you probably know, there is already service roughly every two hours provided by Indian Trails and the Michigan Department of Transportation. It runs under the name of "The Michigan Flyer" in luxury motor coaches (with WiFi that sometimes works!) from Lansing through Jackson and Ann Arbor, stopping near Briarwood at the Four Points Sheraton. That location is convenient for rapid service, because it's so close to I-94, but there is no AATA bus service to it. AATA's proposed service would run from downtown and/or campus locations in Ann Arbor on an hourly basis. The goal is to take no more than 40 or 45 minutes from there to the airport. That's quite feasible as long as you don't have many stops in Ann Arbor. The problem is, everybody wants the bus to stop where they are: the Medical Center, Central Campus, the downtown Ann Arbor transit center, somewhere on the south side of Ann Arbor, and somewhere in Ypsilanti. And of course there's always the problem of how to pay for the service, how much it would cost users and how much would be subsidized. AATA is working on a presentation to the University of Michigan, hoping they will guarantee a block of seats on each run - perhaps as many as 50% of the seats - for students and staff. Naturally, that would imply an emphasis on service to U of M locations. The good news: tentative start date for the service is October of this year...or at least before Christmas!

To read more:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Thank You, Tea Party!

Today, thirteen states are benefiting from the decisions of Tea Party-supported governors in three other states.

As you probably know, Governors Kasich or Ohio, Scott of Florida, and Walker of Wisconsin each turned down millions of dollars in federal high-speed rail money, claiming their states would be burdened with cost over-runs and operations support for years to come. They claimed to be balancing their states' budgets and saving millions in taxpayer money, in the face of evidence that high-speed rail pays for its own operation, repays capital costs, and brings billions of dollars in new investments to the regions they serve.

The case of Governor Scott of Florida is particularly striking. The Mayors of Orlando, Tampa, and Miami issued a joint statement about the benefit of high-speed rail to their cities. The Florida Chamber of Commerce urged the Governor to implement high speed rail. Several coalitions of businesses made proposals to the state for investing matching money and assuming cost-overrun and operating expenses for high-speed rail. Governor Scott even instructed the Florida Department of Transportation not to accept the proposals. He refused even to listen. A classic case of, "don't bother me with the facts -my mind is made up".

The Florida project was the set to be the first 220-MPH rail line in the US, running largely in the median of Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando, a distance of about 85 miles. Last year, when I was living most of the time in Florida, I had occasion to travel on I-4 several times. The traffic in the urban areas is frightful, and in the rural areas is merely heavy. Decades ago, I recall it as a pleasant drive, but population growth has made I-4 more of a nightmare than a nice experience. Governor Scott's refusal of funds to alleviate the problem are, I suppose, a great gesture of ideological purity for his Tea Party supporters. (Who knows what other, less public reasons he had for sending the money back.)

OK, so Governor Scott freed up about two billion dollars in money that can only be spent for high-speed rail. Governors Walker and Kasich turned away a few millions more. Today, we find out what's happening to that money. Part of the answer is, Michigan wins pretty big. Thank you, Tea Party!

Today, Ray LaHood, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, is making announcements at Penn Station in New York and Detroit Station in Michigan, about where the money is going to end up, and what for. For the $2.2B that were so kindly freed up by Tea Party governors, 33 states submitted proposals amounting to about $10B. Obviously, not every state is getting what they asked for, but many got a big boost. Let's look at the other states first, then in more detail at our region.

  • The Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington) was the biggest winner, with $795M (39% of the redistributed funds) for general upgrades and several site-specific improvements.
  • Five northeastern states are sharing another 7%, $150.2M for track and station improvements.
  • The South gets only 1% of the redistribution, Texas with $15M to study express rail service possibilities between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, while North Carolina is getting $4M for studies of the Southeast HSR Corridor (but North Carolina, which has invested a lot of its state funds into rail, also received a lot of Federal money from earlier ARRA distributions).
  • The West Coast states each received some money (19%), but the lion's share (15% of the total) goes to California, with $300M to extend and accelerate its 220-MPH high-speed project.

What about us? The Midwest gets 34% of this distribution, $609.3M. The Obama Administration has put a high premium on regions that work together cooperatively, and the Midwest has done that remarkably well (despite the recent defection of governors of Ohio and Wisconsin). For much of this, we owe a big vote of thanks to two organizations that have worked hard to bring the entire region together for high speed rail:

  • The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative: The MWRRI is the combined effort of nine Midwestern state departments of transportation, which have worked since 1996 to plan and implement a 3,000 mile high speed rail system to connect the region.
  • The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is a member-supported, non-profit organization advocating for fast, frequent and dependable trains linking the entire Midwest. For the last ten years, the tireless efforts of Rick Harnish, its Executive Director, have been promoting an integrated network of new, 220-mph high-speed lines combined with modernized Amtrak trains linked to strong local transit networks.

Michigan received $199.3M this time around, 10% of the total redistribution (pretty good, considering there were 13 states receiving funds). The majority of that, $196.5M, is "to rehabilitate track and signal systems, bringing trains up to speeds of 110 mph on a 235-mile section of the Chicago to Detroit corridor, reducing trip times by 30 minutes". The section referred to is between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. Currently, the section between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek is owned by Canadian National (CN), while the eastern portion belongs to Norfolk Southern (NS). NS would like to sell their line, since it's used more by Amtrak than by their freight trains - which means it would cost them more to maintain than it's worth to them. (It would, that is, if they were maintaining it...but apparently, since they're not planning to keep it, they aren't making a great effort. The section between Ypsilanti and Chelsea has been downgraded to 40 MPH because of poor track condition, and that may soon be extended all the way to Jackson.) The State of Michigan would like to purchase the NS line, but not at the price NS wants for it. (Negotiations aren't public, but it's pretty well agreed that price is the sticking point.) Is any of the $196M to be spent on purchasing the line? We'll wait and see.

Michigan will also share the benefits of the $286.2M for Midwest "Next Generation Passenger Rail Equipment Purchase – This state-of-the-art rail equipment will provide safe and reliable American-built vehicles for passenger travel, while boosting the U.S. manufacturing industry," according to the US DOT press release (linked below). Will any of them be built in Michigan? Probably not - other states seem to have been more active in attracting rail manufacturers.

Another $2.8M is designated for Ann Arbor's planned Fuller Road station, which is to be built on city-owned land near the foot of the University Medical Center. That, it turn, will allow the hoped-for commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit to have a station adjacent to the largest employer in the county. It will also include a park-and-ride facility, so commuters will be able to come from the entire county and park their cars there; no adequate parking is available at the current Amtrak station, which is over capacity now. Ann Arbor's (as I've mentioned before) is the busiest station in Michigan; the 85 people who boarded the morning train to Chicago on Saturday weren't able to fit in the waiting room; many had to wait outside.

These amounts are just about the finishing touches on what the Wolverine line needs to provide service that's competitive with auto travel to Chicago. Earlier grants and work have targeted bottlenecks on the route:

  • The Englewood Flyover was funded earlier this year to alleviate a frequent source of delay a few miles south of Chicago Union Station.
  • The Porter (Indiana) junction was funded last year; this will address the problem-spot where all three of Michigan's passenger lines join the busy main New York to Chicago line, formerly New York Central and now NS.
  • Amtrak owns the line from Porter to Kalamazoo, the longest stretch of track owned by Amtrak outside the Northeast Corridor. Their crews, based in Niles, have upgraded the line and signals to allow running at 110 MPH already, though currently 95 is the top speed allowed.
  • Detroit Junction received a grant two years ago for a more direct connection between the CN line running north to Pontiac and the Conrail Joint Assets track running west toward Ann Arbor. This one junction is responsible for a consistent 10-minute delay, which can easily stretch to much more when there are opposing freight movements on either line.
  • Dearborn is moving its station to a new location, where it will be more centrally located and will encourage transit-oriented development.

Of course there's lots more that could be done to make the rail connection from Michigan to Chicago better. But don't look for more Federal money. As of April 15, the FY 2010 budget for high speed rail was reduced from $2.5B to $2.1B. The FY 2011 budget was reduced from $1.0B to $o.oo. That means it's time for Michigan to step up and do its part to continue improving transportation alternatives. It doesn't necessarily involve general tax increases, either: public-private partnerships can ease the pain for the state and provide an income stream for businesses; user fees for all types of transportation, including air, rail, and road, should be raised to cover more of their actual costs. But it would take a change in mind-set for Michigan transportation planners to engage business partners, and courage for legislators to enact higher fees for anything. So let's engage our state planners and legislators to see what we can do to provide alternatives to $4+/gallon gas. Consider joining the Michigan Association of Rail Passenger and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, both of which do excellent work to support rational transportation alternatives.

Oh, yes - and even though we owe some thanks to the Tea Party in three other states, let's not encourage them in Michigan, OK?

To read more:

Monday, May 2, 2011

The basics of Highways and Rails

Yesterday (May 1), The Flint Journal published an editorial in favor of state support for passenger rail, "Our Voice: Michigan must climb aboard movement to ride the rails". They cited the past six months' 26.2% increase in ridership on the Blue Water, Amtrak's line from Chicago through Lansing and Flint to Port Huron. (Only one trip per day each way.) Interestingly, Flint's station saw a 34.7% increase in the last six months.

There were quite a number of favorable comments by this afternoon, but as usual, there were the folks who believe we should subsidize highways but not railways. "Bullseye" expressed these sentiments colorfully: "What a laugh. What are you smoking! Rail roads have never paid for themselves. We are unable to keep our roads maintained. Where would we find money for this? No police, no fireman! This is dream from la la land you need to come back to Michigan!"

So it's time to go over some of the basics about the cost of rail travel. I put up a comment; here's a version for you, dear blog readers:

It's true that railroads cost taxpayer money, but so do roads and so do cars. Here are a few facts:

  • Even toll roads don't pay for themselves; the Illinois Tollway Authority is requesting money from the Illinois State Legislature.
  • Americans sent $254 billion to other countries for oil in 2009, much if it to unfriendly governments. If American "patriots" woke up and realized how much they're subsidizing our enemies by hanging on to their SUVs, they might think investing a little of their tax dollars in rail passenger service was a really good deal.
  • Family travelers: Kids love being able to run around in trains. My 3-year-old grandson learned how to kick the door-open panel on a trip to Chicago. (Drove the Conductor crazy, but the kid had a great time!)
  • No transit "nuts" are trying to get you out of your car. They're just trying get you to let them into the train, the bus, and the light rail, so you can have more room on the highway. It's a good deal for you, and costs less than adding lanes to the highway!
Oh - and remember if you're a business traveler, 99% of your time on a train to Chicago would be billable work-time. How much of your time would be billable on a plane or driving your car? Business travelers would recover their year's tax expenditures, plus business-class rail fare in one trip. Gov. Snyder is a business man and understands the value of this transportation option, which is why he supported rail during his campaign.