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Detroit’s New Rapid Transit Line Gets (More) Real

Study says light rail, commuter trains feasible and practical

August 18, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Will Ann Arbor and Detroit catch the train?

DETROIT – Brace yourself. You can almost see the yellow and blue rail trains on the new Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter line sliding into the transfer platform at the New Center station in Detroit. And, on the other side, the sleek cars of the wildly popular Woodward Avenue light rail line whisking thousands of passengers to jobs, lofts, and entertainment, stopping every mile or so en route to downtown Detroit.

Last month, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments quietly posted an analysis of this regional rapid transit option, and nine other ways to move people back and forth between Detroit and Ann Arbor, with stops in the city and at Metro Airport, Ypsilanti, Dearborn, and several more suburbs.

The analysis, which clearly indicates that reviving rail transit in Detroit and its suburbs is feasible and practical, comes as popular support in southeast Michigan for public transit rises. In early August, citizens, by a 70 percent to 30 percent margin, voted to pay for the SMART suburban bus system in Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties with their property taxes. The highest support – 76 percent – came from Oakland County, where almost 64,718 voters said yes to the millage election, three times more than the 20,465 people who opposed it.

“Imagine how great the results would be if we had a chance to vote to invest in a regional rapid transit system that people were really excited about,” said Megan Owens, the executive director of Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based advocacy group. “People already support it. How long will we have to wait before our elected officials catch up?”

The answer to that question, perhaps, is not much longer. Two years ago SEMCOG launched a research project to determine whether building a rapid transit line along the 50-mile Detroit-to-Ann Arbor corridor is technically and financially feasible. The proposed line, which last year received a $100 million Congressional commitment for engineering, design, and construction, could be Detroit’s rapid transit starter line, the one that shows that more commuters, residents, and visitors will loosen their grip on the steering wheel and take the bus or the train.

Such starter lines have been essential to getting the trains moving in cities from Denver to Dallas. A successful starter line that attracts thousands of riders proves that there is a demand for rapid public transit, building the political and financial support for a full-fledged rapid regional transit system, which fuels still more ridership, a superior quality of life, and economic vitality. Already, regional rapid transit is strengthening the economic competitiveness of Minneapolis, Denver, St. Louis, Dallas, San Diego, Portland, and more than a dozen other metropolitan regions.

Rapid Transit in Southeast Michigan is Technically Feasible
The first step is showing that a starter line is technically feasible. SEMCOG’s newest assessment does just that—it clearly shows that commuter rail, light rail, and rapid bus route are all practical options for Southeast Michigan. The regional planning and research agency’s contractor, the California-based Parsons Corporation, laid out the pros and cons of separating or combining three basic technologies to move passengers:

  • 60-passenger rapid buses traveling in new dedicated lanes on Interstate 94's business route, Michigan Avenue, and a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane on Interstate 94 itself. 
  • 62-passenger light rail cars traveling on newly built dual tracks along Michigan Avenue to Ypsilanti, and in the middle of business route 94 from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor.         
  • Diesel-propelled commuter rail cars along existing Norfolk Southern tracks from New Center to Chelsea, with three to eight other stations. The commuter rail options also come with light rail connections to downtown Detroit along Woodward Avenue or Michigan Avenue. One of the commuter rail options under study would start at the Joe Louis Arena and end at Metro Airport. Passengers going further would have to transfer to a rapid bus line for the ride to Ann Arbor. 

Regardless of the technology that SEMCOG will eventually choose—that decision has been delayed due to difficulties in predicting how popular the lines could be—all three technologies would operate on similar schedules.

Parsons envisions operating from before dawn to midnight Monday through Saturday, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. Trains or busses would arrive in stations every 20 minutes during rush hour, every 30 minutes the rest of the day, and every 60 minutes on weekends. The entire trip between the two cities would take an hour. Fares would be levied by zone, with tickets from Detroit to Ann Arbor costing a maximum of $6 each way; tickets from either city to the airport would be $3.00, and it would cost just $1.50 to ride between stations in any single zone.

Show Me the Riders and I’ll Show You the Money
The new assessment, though, offers no new details about the potential cost of building any of the alternatives. That report, which also will include SEMCOG’s recommendation for what to build, has been delayed because analysts are having trouble predicting how many people might actually use the line, according to Carmine Palombo, SEMCOG’s director of transportation programs.

In a memorandum on August 7, Mr. Palombo said that because there is no public transit between the two cities, forecasters have scant data to project future ridership, which is essential to convincing the Federal Transit Administration to help pay for the project. Parsons is developing a mathematical model to predict ridership, but the work won’t be finished until late September, said Mr. Palombo.

“These numbers are very important because they are used in calculations of projected revenue and operations costs,” Mr. Palombo added. “They also are inputs into the FTA model that prioritizes this project against the other proposed projects across the country.”

Even without the cost and ridership numbers SEMCOG’s latest report on the Detroit to Ann Arbor line nevertheless stirred considerable interest in the community of advocates who view regional rapid transit as a missing piece of civic equipment in southeast Michigan.

“My hope is that a rapid transit line between Ann Arbor and Detroit is on an inevitable path at this point,” said Conan Smith, the 34-year-old executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, which represents 22 cities and 930,000 residents in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, and Monroe counties. “My feeling is that urban residents will gravitate to it more quickly, especially commuters. But you’re going to see a ton of people use it, people driving into Detroit and Ann Arbor, people going to the airport.”

Mr. Smith, who also is an elected county commissioner in Washtenaw, believes the best technologies for the line are commuter rail or light rail, or a combination. If SEMCOG chooses a rapid bus technology, he says, it won’t galvanize voter or governmental support.

“If they just say rapid bus, you’ll lose a lot of support from Washtenaw,” said Mr. Smith. “Sitting in traffic on I-94 is something we’re really good at. I don’t think we need to sit in a bus to do that.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is director of program development at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah. This is the second of a three-part article. The entire article was published in the August 16, 2006 edition of Metrotimes in Detroit. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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