Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ann Arbor - Detroit Regional Rail Project Delayed Indefinitely

When I first started graduate school back in the fall of 2005, I attended an event hosted by SEMCOG at Washtenaw Community College. The topic was the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail service, and SEMCOG presented several different corridor designs. SEMCOG promised that service could be operating within a couple of years.

Well, a couple of years past, then another year, then another year. They then said that service would begin in 2010.

SEMCOG recently announced that the Ann Arbor to Detroit regional rail service would be delayed indefinitely due to lack of funds. Other articles -, Crain's.

SEMCOG has been openly criticized by Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick for spending several million dollars on studying the project without results.

Here's my take on this whole situation.

1. If you read my earlier post about SEMCOG, you will know that I have issues with SEMCOG's role in our region. I think it either has to be empowered and given real authority, replaced with a type of regional governance structure with more direct accountability to the elected people, put directly under the oversight of our region's existing government leaders (counties, large cities), and/or shrink its geographic scope (from 9 counties to fewer) so that the tri-county, Metro Detroit region has greater control over its own destiny as an urban-suburban region.

2. The Ann Arbor to Detroit service was only really supposed to operate 8 train rides per day: 2 in the morning and evening from Detroit and from Ann Arbor, and 2 in the morning and evening from Ann Arbor to Detroit. Well, what about people that have a business meeting mid day in Detroit and may stay for dinner or a baseball game? What about people who have a flight in the middle of the day or late afternoon at Detroit Metro airport? How would this service accommodate them?

The reason for this lack of regular service is

a. lack of funding
b. Norfolk Southern owns the track along Michigan Ave.

This corridor would not only serve the commuter rail service, but also Norfolk Southern freight and existing Amtrak service.

This begs the question - why not use a different corridor?

In my own opinion, I think the corridor selection was done on the cheap, and that a better method would be to not only utilize the right-of-way of Norfolk Southern, but transform road corridors into transit corridors. Grade separation (meaning the train doesn't have to slow down or stop for car traffic) and dedicated track is the real long-term solution, although there are increased cost involved with such infrastructure development. And if we were to consider total grade separation and right-of-way, we should think of this corridor in the same context of high-speed rail between Detroit and Chicago, and perhaps Detroit and Toronto.

3. While SEMCOG's website speaks of a stop at "Metro Airport," the stop would actually be along Michigan Avenue, which is 4-5 miles NORTH of the Airport terminals. So if you wanted to access the airport and you didn't have a car, and you didn't want to pay $50-70 or more for a cab or Metro Car, you would have to find a way to get the commuter rail line (walking, bus, car drop off, commuter lot), get on the rail, and then transfer into a bus to get down to the airport.

The question here is why can't we have a transit line that allows you to walk out of the airport terminal and get right on the train? That's the situation in Atlanta, Chicago, Amsterdam, Dubai, Washington D.C., and countless other cities across the world. We have a world-class airport - why not connect it the region with world-class transit service? And when you do the cost benefit analysis, a half hour trip to the airport in a car has to be compared to an hour and a half trip to the airport, so what is the value of your time?

4. MONEY - The federal government New Starts program, designed for new transit systems, is a smaller pool of money than the general transit funding mechanisms (which support the transit lines of New York, Chicago, D.C., and elsewhere). So our chances of getting that money, or getting a different appropriation from the federal government are somewhat small. The pilot Ann Arbor to Detroit project was supposed to demonstrate demand along this corridor so that we could receive regular federal funding, but again, we are still somewhat dependent on the federal government for transit in this region.

Cities like Denver, through RTD (the regional transit authority), forged their own economic future by putting down money through a .4 cents (that's 5 cents on $10) regional sales tax. Unfortunately, Michigan law doesn't allow a regional or local sales tax. Instead, we are dependent on property taxes, which we all know are decreasing due to the economic downturn. So we don't have the mechanisms as a region to invest in this project on our own. We are also hurt by not having a regional transit authority, which lawmakers are working on in Lansing through new legislation.


Representative Kilpatrick, who championed the huge allocation from the federal government to study the Ann Arbor - Detroit line, has now taken a different view on the project, stating that she thinks that the corridor should be considered alongside high-speed rail development, a priority of the Obama administration. I agree that this corridor should be considered in a larger mega-regional context, but that if we do go that route, we must still be able to provide more frequent and unique service offerings along this corridor. Flexibility will ensure that the system is operated with economic efficiency, offering service based on demand.

Yet the potential for this project to happen lies behind the will of the public and our political leaders and business leaders. We need to come together and establish a regional transportation authority, and ask Lansing (and D.C.) for greater self-determination in raising capital for these projects. But it doesn't stop there.

GE recently set up shop out in Van Buren Township to build energy systems for alternative energy and home appliances (they are also setting up a new operation in Ohio that focuses on aerospace). GE is playing a greater role in the high-speed rail business. The idea is that GE could partner with auto engineers and suppliers to build and demonstrate the next generation of high-speed trains (or even maglev).

If our region's political leaders and business leaders could come together in partnership around the development of a new generation of transit service - operated in a more profit-driven, public-private model - we might see the kind of investment in Ann Arbor-Detroit as we saw in the M-1 rail project.

Bottom line

This isn't to say that the Ann Arbor-Detroit line may not be successful under the current model (if it ever gets going), but the lack of progress on this project suggests that the direction and approach may be flawed. If we, as a region, want this and other transit projects to happen, we need be bold in our conviction for it, creative in our vision for it, and be willing to pay for some of it. In my opinion, it is a worthwhile investment for the future of this region.


  1. "she thinks that the corridor should be considered alongside high-speed rail development, a priority of the Obama administration."

    Do you think the A2-Detroit commuter service has /not/ been considered alongside high-speed rail development? From my conversations with SEMCOG and other players over the past year or so, it has been my impression that the two projects are very much being considered in tandem, especially where it comes to capital improvements.

    This factor is responsible for a lot of my support for the NS alignment over some of the other alternatives discussed four-five years ago - if we can double-count our track, station, etc investments for both the commuter and high-speed rails, so much the better, even though it may not drop us off right at the airport door.

    But - even the airport transfer isn't necessarily a problem, or unusual. Thinking back to living in New Jersey, I'm reminded of Newark, my mental model for "good airport transit connections", which involves a transfer from Amtrak/NJTransit's NE Corridor line to a 3-mile connector monorail, or JFK, which just recently had their 8-mile "Airtrain" line open to connect the airport to the subway. Further, consider how many people "drive to the airport" - only to park and take a shuttle bus the last few miles from one of the private park-and-fly lots. And, even if the commuter line did go "to the airport", which terminal? We'd still need connecting circulator service within the airport to serve many passengers.

    All in all, the connection/transfer is the least of my concerns here - as long as it's done in a user-legible fashion.

  2. Thanks again for commenting Murph. I do think the transfer is a factor with the airport. If you did a cost benefit analysis that factored in the value of your time, I think would see a lot of people prefer to take a metro car or taxi over the proposed transit service because the it would take less time and be more direct. Now, for people who are taking a long trip, then parking your car or taking transit/shuttle isn't so big a deal. But if you are flying into Detroit for a conference, business meeting, event, etc, and you want to quickly get to your destination, the infrequent transit/shuttle service is not for you.

    As for the HSR considerations, I don't doubt that SEMCOG has considered that corridor along with HSR. I haven't heard much about it, so perhaps they need to be more public with that option. I don't know that you are going to be able to balance Amtrack service + NS freight + commuter rail all on the same track, but I could be wrong. Either way, to NS, their cargo is more precious than moving people, so cargo might take precedent and disrupt the timing and regularity of the transit service.