Friday, March 24, 2017

What's next for Wally?

Well, the final - long-delayed - public meeting series has wrapped up for the feasability assessment of the North-South Rail project. That's the commuter service proposed eleven years ago to serve between Howell and Ann Arbor, affectionately known as Wally.

Playing "by the rules", Wally gets a grade of C from the project team.

Only a C?

As Bob Moore (Quandell Consulting's engineer on the project) explained it, the likelihood of getting Federal funds to continue the project depend, at this stage, on a preliminary analysis of its cost-effectiveness. This is currently calculated by a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) prescribed formula of the cost of each individual trip, given the ridership forecast generated by an FTA approved forecasting model called STOPS.

Nobody know exactly how STOPS works, except that it takes data on commuter flows, job locations, and demographics; and comes out with an estimate that allows FTA to compare projections across the country on the same, even footing. So even though we don't know how it works or (necessarily) trust it, we know it's the only model that could - just possibly - get more federal funding for Wally. (The current study was funded by about $800K in federal, and much less in state/local money.)

Several service configurations were analyzed, and two emerged as worth bringing forward:

Option 1: Full Service. Between downtown Howell and downtown Ann Arbor, 30 miles. Four trains to Ann Arbor in the morning, four to Howell in the evening. Daily one-way riders'  trips, according to STOPS: 1,840 initially, growing to 2,346 by 2040. Capital to put it into service, a generously estimated $122.3M, with $13.2M to operate it. What would a trip cost the rider? For a single one-way ticket between Ann Arbor and Howell, the team thought $6 looked about right, taking into account what other commuter services around the country are charging. The trip would take 51 minutes, which is longer than by car, except during rush hours - which are the only times the trains would run under this option). During rush hour, it takes longer by car, but you can never tell how much longer, because the frequent incidents and weather events make the commute very unpredictable. Cost to operate: $4.55 per trip, achieving FTA rating Medium Low (C- in school-jargon).

Option 5b: Shuttle with two trains. Between Whitmore Lake and downtown Ann Arbor, 11 miles. Four trains to Ann Arbor and two returning to Whitmore Lake in the morning; four to Whitmore Lake in the evening and two returning to Ann Arbor. Capital $65.2M; operating expense $7.0M per year. Daily trips according to STOPS: 1,670 initialy, and 2,420 by 2040. Time: 21 minutes, fare $2. Cost to operate: $2.68 per trip, earning FTA rating Medium (call it a C).

I'd like to go into a lot more detail on what each option involves - particularly where all the money is going and what might be done to reduce the cost. I'll do that soon, time permitting.

By the Rules - Which Rules?

Since this study started in 2014, the terms of the contract required an exposition of rules under the Obama administration. Those are the rules nominally in effect now, but the Trump administration and allies in Congress propose serious changes to the rules.

First, they want the rules for project-funding to be simpler and require less environmental study.

Second, they want to eliminate most funding to public transportation that benefits communities without making a profit. In effect, it will become easier to apply for non-existent funding.

As a result, the new federal rules - when they are enacted - will have a weighty, but unknown impact on Wally and all other attempts to expand public transportation.

New Reality

On the other hand, the current administration would like to involve more private entities, encouraging them to invest money in "infrastructure". Unfortunately, their campaign rhetoric didn't specify exactly what kind of infrastructure they want this to include. In effect, this will leave the decision to "the market" - which will invest in projects with the highest direct monetary return.

So communities like Livingston and Washtenaw that want to improve themselves through public transportation will have to look elsewhere for others to pay for their infrastructure.

Certainly, the name of the game for quite a while has been to find someone else to pay for our benefits. We wrestled with this in February at WATS, after learning that Michigan's Department of Transportation doesn't have money for community-led projects, like a safety island for pedestrians to cross Washtenaw Avenue just east of U.S. 23. But we're not willing to set a precendent to pay for our own pedestrian safety on a state-owned highway. That's understandable, but the need to pay for our own community amenities will only increase over the coming years. However, that's a topic for another blog.

Wally's Next Baby-Steps

Most of us who want to get aboard Wally are very frustrated. This "baby" is taking SO long to learn to walk!

Some have said it's being analyzed to death, but it might be more accurate to say it's being neglected to death. The first analysis was done in 2008; this next step, more detailed and involving more federal safety requirements (particularly positive train control) was supposed to take 18 months, but took closer to 36. Why? I've never been able to learn why. "Names are not being revealed in order to protect the guilty," as they say.

Up to now, AATA and AAATA have acted as custodian of the "baby", but really only as foster-parents. The Authority doesn't have experience running trains, and doesn't run anything - even buses - in Livinston County. In order to move forward, some loose form of coalition, possibly under Michigan's "Act 7" according to the study, will need to band together to find money for the next phase of the project.

Fortunately, there is a dynamic group in Livingston County calling themselves the "Livingston Transportation Coalition" moving forward "with vigor" to get a county-wide Livingston Transportation Authority started.

There is no Wally support group active in Washtenaw County that I know of. The original Wally Coalition, which I believe started around 2005, is sadly dispersed. Prominent members included Dick Carlisle, a Principal of the Carlisle-Wortman Associates planning firm; Tony Vander Worp, Washtenaw County Planning Director (in the days when there was one); and W.O.P. John, artist and entrepreneur, who developed the lovable smiling Wally locomotive logo.

The Wally Coalition has been succeeded by the Friends of Wally. They have a respectable mailing list and friends list, and a small but active core chaired by Mike Lamb of Howell, drawing almost all its active members from Livingston County. (Full disclosure: I am the "token" Washtenaw County member on the Friends' Board.) They have been very helpful in keeping Wally in the public and official eyes of Livingston: updating a Facebook page, setting up booths at fairs, organizing people to speak up at city- and county-council meetings, and working as part of the Livingston Transportation Coalition.

In both counties, anti-tax agitators will predictably be a challenge to getting the project going. My belief, though, is that even people who are reasonably well-disposed to public transportation will need more to vote for than either of the rail commuter services being proposed.

So, What Else?

Here's the problem. Wally would be a great help to some of the people living near the proposed stations at Whitmore Lake, and if/when the full service option gets going, those up the line in Hamburg, western Brighton, and Howell. But as I see it, neither of the proposals as offered in the study deliver enough value for enough voters to come anywhere near passing, no matter how the voting districts are drawn. There are several limitations to the proposals that lead me to that conclusion.

First, the areas served. If all the service runs in to Ann Arbor on weekday mornings and back in the evenings, practically nobody living in Ann Arbor would have any use for it. In Washtenaw County, only residents of Northfield Township (Whitmore Lake) would benefit directly. Certainly Ann Arbor would benefit by not having as many cars pouring in, clogging the streets and demanding parking, but residents of the City see the residents further north as being "to blame" for the problem. "Let them move to the city!" is the refrain I hear quite often, and though I don't believe Ann Arborites would like it if that happened (be careful what you wish for!) it's simply unreasonable in American society to expect suburban and exurban people to move to cities in large numbers.

Second, the times service is offered are not enough. Rush-hour in and rush-hour out is when train service is of greatest value to the largest number, true. But the lack of provision for shift workers (hospital, IT, and other large employment groups) and irregular travelers (university students and faculty, hospital visitors, outpatients, and tourists seeking to avoid downtown Ann Arbor parking hassles) seriously reduces the number of people who could use it. The answer is to provide regular bus service for those who work odd and irregular hours, when traffic on parallel U.S.23 makes it possible to meet schedules reliably.

Third, the lack of connections. Neither Whitmore Lake nor Livingston County have anything like a bus service to get poeple to the stations. Regions where commuter trains operate with full loads have a combination of park-and-ride lots and buses that get people to the stations. Buses make it reasonable for a family to have only one car (or *gasp* none at all, if they live close enough to stores, etc.).

If supplementary and connecting bus service is offered as part of a "package" along with Wally, it stands a much better chance of being accepted by voters. Sure, it would cost more! But it would deliver meaningful benefits to many more people - maybe even enough to pass a millage.

How this "package" is put together is the next step we need to be working on.

For an overview of the presentation:
For all the technical details:
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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Connections, Connections, Connectons!

You're probably familiar with the real estate proverb: "It's about location, location, location". In public transportation, it's all about "connections, connections, connections".

We're happy to learn that Amtrak and Indian Trails (Michigan's preeminent rural provider of transportation connections) announced on February 17 that Indian Trails will connect with Wolverine service trains.

For several years, we've been hearing that Central Michigan University (CMU) in Mt. Pleasant has been eager for better ways to get to and from campus for their students - especially the international ones who very seldom have access to personal automobiles.

So what would a CMU student do if they wanted to leave the vast flatlands of Isabella County and head for the bright lights?

A quick check of the Amtrak on-line ticketing service revealed that neither "Mt. Pleasant" nor "Mount Pleasant" are listed in Michigan. (Mount Pleasant, Iowa, is listed). Perhaps Amtrak's Media Center is a bit faster than their database folks. Possibly a phone call to 1-800-USA-RAIL would produce tickets.

Anyway, one of the challenges in the past when we've tried to get Amtrak and Indian Trails to link up has been the timing of the connections. This time around, two of the possible four connections are quite convenient. I've plotted out four trips below: from Mt. Pleasant to Chicago and back, and to Ann Arbor and back. None is amazingly swift, but the return trips to Mt. Pleasant both involve long periods cooling your heels.

The Amtrak schedule (which you can download in PDF format from Amtrak's site) does not reveal that these schedules include a change of buses in Lansing. On the way south, there's a 30-minute layover on the schedule, but we all know that reality often lags behind schedules, so 30 minutes is about the shortest safe time for a layover. OK.

On the way back north, the layover is 1:50 - nearly two hours. This is in early afternoon at the combined Greyhound/CATA terminal in downtown Lansing, a perfect time to stroll over to a nearby restaurant for lunch (and there are several). That may be OK for people who know Lansing and can walk 2-3 blocks, but there will probably be a lot of people unfamiliar with the town or unable to walk that far. Not good.

At about seven or eight hours to Chicago, it's two or three hours longer than driving, but probably worth the trip for many.

But Ann Arbor? Six hours getting to Ann Arbor is three times as long as it takes to drive. And the return from Ann Arbor, Detroit, and the rest of Southeast Michigan is mind-numbing: nearly ten hours from A2, over three of which must be spent waiting in Battle Creek for the eastbound Indian Trails bus, and another two are spent in Lansing waiting for the northbound bus. This connection is definitely not a winner.

Here are the schedules. I've highlighted the layover times in green if they're less than an hour, and in pink if they are longer.

Getting Out Amtrak Number Time of Day Travel or Wait Time Total Time
To Ann Arbor
Mt. Pleasant 8855 4:30 PM
Lansing Ar 8855 5:50 PM 1:20 01:20
Lansing Dp 8833 6:20 PM 0:30 01:50
Kalamazoo Ar 8833 8:40 PM 2:20 04:10
Kalamazoo Dp 354 9:10 PM 0:30 04:40
Ann Arbor 354 11:20 PM 2:10 06:50
To Chicago
Mt. Pleasant 8855 4:30 PM
Lansing Ar 8855 5:50 PM 1:20 01:20
Lansing Dp 8833 6:20 PM 0:30 01:50
Kalamazoo Ar 8833 8:40 PM 2:20 04:10
Kalamazoo Dp 355 9:25 PM 0:45 04:55
Chicago 355 10:56 PM 0:49 07:26

Getting Back Amtrak # Time of Day Travel or Wait Time Total Time
From Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor 351 7:24 AM
Battle Creek Ar 351 9:01 AM 1:37 01:37
Battle Creek Dp 8614 12:01 PM 3:00 04:37
Lansing Ar 8614 1:05 PM 1:04 05:41
Lansing Dp 8650 2:55 PM 1:50 07:31
Mt. Pleasant 8650 4:20 PM 1:25 08:56
From Chicago
Chicago 350 7:20 AM
Battle Creek Ar 350 11:24 AM 4:04 04:04
Battle Creek Dp 8614 12:01 PM 0:37 04:41
Lansing Ar 8614 1:05 PM 1:04 05:45
Lansing Dp 8650 2:55 PM 1:50 07:35
Mt. Pleasant 8650 4:20 PM 1:25 09:00

Friday, March 10, 2017

Rx for the RTA - Part 2

Rx for the RTA - Part 2

Don't ignore the periphery

Voters at the edges of the RTA district felt left out. Some liked it that way, but many would have liked to have some concrete type of service, or at least to be heard. That didn't happen for two very important reasons.

First, service to areas where people are spread way out is prohibitively expensive to serve with regular bus routes. Consequently, there were no lines on the map indicating routes to the far-flung reaches of the district. Instead, a small amount of funding was redirected in the last few weeks of the run-up to the election, with the idea that peripheral areas could get together and figure out what they wanted to do with the money. Unfortunately, his was not the solution people were looking for.

Second, RTA resources were spread too thin. There are somewhere in the ballpark of 250 political jurisdictions in the RTA district - cities, towns, villages, townships, authorities, and the four counties themselves. Each has a relatively large amount of autonomy compared with the setup in some other states I've lived in (principally Maryland and Florida) as an expression of the frontier spirit of homerule.

Trying to address these jurisdications were the five staff members of the RTA: the CEO, Deputy CEO, one planner, one outreach coordinator, and one administrative assistant. Each of these was stretched thin and responded heroically to the challenges and requests for service and conversation, all in an agonizingly short period of time. But they were too few and the time was too short.

The election results have not provided more staff, but they have given the staff time to listen, explain, and tweak the plan. Talking and listening are the key, because the plan is already close to the best that can be expected given the fiscal constraints imposed by our political leaders.

Make better use of existing resources

The RTA has certainly used existing resources in a great way, but with more time, there are more possibilities for coordination.

First, sit down with the big corporations that supported the RTA with lip-service and also with campaign funds. These include Ford and GM (which might surprise people). They also include supporters of M-1 Rail, whose finances were understandably limited for more transit projects. The big medical and educational institutions, the so-called "meds & eds", benefit tremenously from public transportation - and know it - though their pockets are not uniformly deep. Real estate brokers and owners are big beneficiaries of transit as well, though not all may appreciate the fact.

It may surprise some of you to learn that there are enlightened banks and finance corporations with a great interest in public transportation. Comerica and Morgan Stanley are two that have demonstrated this with "cash on the barrel head". If you think about it, the connection between banks and the value of real estate makes the reason for their interest clear.

In addition to financial resources and corporate know-how, there are infrastructure resources which I believe could be better utilized in the Transit Master Plan. There are some rail lines that would provide speed and ease of access in several corridors, though the low-hanging fruit has been plucked in the Ann Arbor to Detroit corridor. Despite the appearance of easy availability, the use of rusting rail corridors requires pretty intensive capital outlay, making it impractical if it's totally funded by taxpayer dollars. And some of the most desirable rail corridors are pretty heavily used by their freight-hauling owners, and can be shared only by compensating those owners with sums that make it worth their while to allow passenger trains on their property.

Other infrastructure resources include the expressways - built and maintained with a tremendous outlay of taxpayer money. Though these are famously congested during peak hours, there are many U.S. cities which use their expressways with various techniques to speed up express bus service. Michigan is seriously lagging behind other states in providing the legislative and enforcement resources needed to set up high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) and high-occupancy+toll (HOT) lanes. These appear to have been quite successful in other states; are we incapable of keeping up?

I have proposed creating a bus-beltway using I-94, I-275, and I-696, which would tie most of the RTA's crosstown routes together. Yes, this too would require more resources, but relatively little compared to some other options.

Finally, the airport is a great existing resource. Sure, there has been some pretty serious difficulty with arrangements for buses there, but it's worth pushing for. The airport authority has a new CEO, so there's hope for a more cooperative approach.

Build trust

Asking people to vote for an organization that has no record of accomplishment? Always iffy. So it's critical to build trust. Most unfortunately for everyone, Michael Ford's expense records have been examined by the press and found to be overly generous. Even more unfortunately, it's not the first time the media have uncovered his expenses which, though routine for many corporate executives, are high enough to be troubling to taxpayers. It happened in Ann Arbor shortly before he took the CEO position with the RTA. I'm afraid Mr. Ford has undermined his very impressive transit track-record by his lack of personal restraint, and at the same time made it difficult for the RTA to build trust public. I am deeply saddened, as I have not only been impressed by his ability as a transit planner and leader, but consider him to be a personal friend. Yet it's very possible that the RTA Board will consider it necessary to find a new CEO simply to regain the trust of the area's leaders and voters. Very sad indeed.