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Southeast Michigan Studies Regional Transit, Again

More sophisticated analysis could lead to building long-delayed commuter rail system

July 20, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Commuter trains between Detroit, Ann Arbor, and the airport could make use of long-abandoned railroad tracks.

DETROIT -- Maybe this is the one that really gets the trains moving in southeast Michigan. After decades of studies documenting the need for regional transit in southeast Michigan -- and decades of inaction following those studies -- an entirely new assessment of a transit line that could link Ann Arbor and Detroit is moving forward.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments is evaluating the costs and effects of 33 different combinations of commuter rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, and short-distance shuttles that would bridge the 50 miles between the two cities and the major international airport that lies between them. Depending on the combination chosen, costs could range from tens of millions of dollars to several billion dollars. A commuter rail option using existing tracks and requiring only a comparatively small amount of additional infrastructure would likely be the cheapest alternative. 

An Ann Arbor-to-Detroit rail line that also served Detroit Metropolitan Airport would constitute Michigan’s first rapid regional public transportation system. It would most likely be constructed within the extraordinarily busy corridor linking those cities and the airport. Currently the only way to travel among all three locations is by car, while travel between the cities themselves can also be accomplished, albeit quite inconveniently, via extremely limited Amtrak train service and Greyhound and Indian Trails bus service.

SEMCOG’s study, to be released later this year, represents a possible turning point for transit in southeastern Michigan. As the first study in approximately three decades to project costs and ridership, it will carry more weight than many of its predecessors. The study’s chief selling point will be that an effective regional service would form the backbone for better transit in both metro areas. But its chief difficulty will be its cost; the project will require significant local support. While this would require elected leaders to ask their constituents to raise their own taxes, the recent successes of local transit millage elections across the state indicate that prospects for local funding of a quality transit system in southeast Michigan could be good.

A Different Kind of Study
Many area residents have pushed local, regional, and state officials for years for better transit in metro Detroit, the largest metropolitan area in the nation without regional public transportation. Paulette Chaplin, the executive director of Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based citizens group working for quality transit there, said the time for more studies followed by more delay is gone.

“We have been looking at possibilities forever,” Ms. Chaplin said. “It’s time to do something. This city has the highest pedestrian mortality rate in the country. If you don’t have a car, then you get run over by one.”

Some transit proponents say that other recent studies of metro Detroit’s regional transit needs stalled because they did not provide political leaders and residents with enough facts to make informed decisions. The last transit study that contained such projections of costs and ridership occurred in the 1970s.

“They are just concept documents,” Scott Anderson, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, said of those previous efforts. Professor Anderson, a faculty member of the university's Institute for Building Sustainable Communities, added, “We need real dollar and ridership projections. Detroit has become great at spending millions on studies, but it fails to move beyond that point.”

So far, SEMCOG has spent $4 million dollars on the current study. Carmine Palombo, Transportation Director of SEMCOG, said that the study’s more quantitative analysis will allow decision makers, and the public, to actually decide whether establishing a regional transit system is a good idea.

“This is different,” he said, “because we have the dollars to do the alternatives analysis required by the Federal Transit Administration and we seem to have political support in this corridor for some sort of improved public transit.”

Take a Number
Ironically, the current study’s promised emphasis on solid numbers, the very thing that sets it apart from most previous efforts, may also be the major obstacle to actually building a truly regional transit system. Those numbers will likely spark a fierce debate over funding.

Part of the problem stems from limited federal transit funding. Legally, new projects such as light rail systems are eligible for federal support that covers up to 80 percent of their initial capital costs. But with many metropolitan areas in the United States now building regional transit systems and clamoring for federal dollars, the Bush administration often limits funding of new ventures through the federal New Start program to 60 percent of capital costs, according to Mr. Palombo.

As cities compete against each other for those limited funds, they strive to demonstrate the strength of local support for their projects by offering to pay for a greater proportion of the projects themselves. As a result, federal funding can drop to less than 50 percent. In Denver, Colo., for example, the federal government will pick up just 44% of the tab for a $560 million new light rail system that runs for just 12 miles. In Harrisburg, Penn., the federal government paid an even smaller proportion — only 30 percent of an $83 million, 40-mile rail system that saves money by utilizing existing tracks.

Though some money for a regional system in southeast Michigan may come from the state’s general fund, which has been facing billion-dollar deficits for three straight years, it is more likely that local taxes would cover what federal dollars do not. Some local leaders doubt that transit will gain enough local support to pass the necessary tax increases.

“If they can get all the money from the federal government, more power to them,” said L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive, of the Detroit project’s promoters. “But otherwise the costs are likely to be too prohibitive.”

The intense competition for federal money also means a long wait for new transit projects. 

“I am concerned that there are a number of projects ahead of us and that federal funds could take several years to be realized,” said Mr. Palombo.

Pushing Through
Since local governments might be required to pay 40 or more percent, not 20 percent, of improving transit in southeastern Michigan, building it will turn on whether local citizens will vote for increased local support for public transit.

“At the end of the day,” Mr. Palombo said, “it will be up to the local elected officials and the public to decide (whether or not) to build.”

But many transit proponents are optimistic about that part of the complex effort needed to build a modern regional transit system in southeast Michigan. Taxpayer support for local transit systems has been strong across Michigan in recent years. Last August 13 out of 14 communities voting on renewing or increasing transit millages approved such measures.

Prof. Anderson of U of D Mercy said that what may work best is an incremental approach. He thinks creating a model system between Detroit and Ann Arbor would be a highly effective first step toward world-class transit for the entire region.

“We may create one good line,” he said, “and then look to the future with a successful template.”

Jeremy Babener, a student at Haverford College, writes this summer for the Michigan Land Use Institute's news desk. Reach him at Jeremy@mlui.org

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