Every motorist in southeastern Michigan spends a significant portion of their lives stuck in traffic, banging their heads on a steering wheel, cursing the seemingly never-ending parking lot of expressway congestion in front of them. They have all seen city skylines through a smoggy haze. They have all passed the endless sea of asphalt parking lots. And they have all, at one time or another, let out a long sigh of relief while parking in their driveway after another long day of fighting through traffic.
This is the price a population pays when its local transportation choices are shackled to the automobile. This has been life in Metro Detroit for decades.
But Ann Arbor has become a leading advocate for providing more choices. The college town famous for its smarts is lobbying for two commuter rail lines that could connect it to key parts of Metro Detroit.
"Ann Arbor seems to have a much more comprehensive vision of a transportation system," said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit dedicated to improving mass transit in metro Detroit. "They have a lot of cars and parking garages, but they also have a great bus service and are looking at commuter trains. … I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they have created this density and urban vitality while promoting transportation choices. It’s a lesson that Detroit and other urban areas need to heed."
Promoting commuter rail options
Transportation choices abound in Ann Arbor. The city is known for its abundance of sidewalks and trails, installation of bike lanes, efficient bus service, creativeness in squeezing parking spaces into dense areas and, now, as an advocate for commuter rail.
Ann Arbor is pushing for a pair of commuter rail options that have two distinct goals. The first, and most promising, option calls for a commuter rail line connecting Detroit, Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Ypsilanti and Metro Airport. The second option calls for a short rail line to the north, along U.S. 23, to help relieve congestion during a large construction project slated for this summer. The project is expected to all but shut the down this vital North-South link.
"You can only go so far that way unless you have transportation options," Owens said.
Or only go so fast. Motorists using U.S. 23 north of Ann Arbor commonly struggle through its four lanes during rush hour. The highway is the only major roadway connecting Ann Arbor, one of the state’s most vibrant cities, and Livingston County, the state’s fastest growing county. It normally operates at or near capacity during rush hour. Something as common as a flat tire can cause a jam that brings traffic to a halt for miles.
"When a road is approaching or reaching capacity, the system breaks down," said Eli Cooper, the transportation program manager for the city of Ann Arbor.
Things will get worse in March when the Michigan Department Of Transporation cuts the highway down to one lane in each direction so it can repair bridges between Ann Arbor and Brighton. The closure ensures massive traffic jams. Since there isn’t a comparable artery nearby MDOT isn’t suggesting a formal detour, leaving motorists to "pick the best route," according to MDOT spokeswoman Kari Arend.
Ann Arbor is pushing for a short commuter rail route that would utilize existing tracks between the city’s north side and the Livingston County border just south of Brighton. A temporary station would be set up with near a large parking lot in Livingston County. Another temporary station is planned for Plymouth Road with buses that would take passengers to several points throughout the city, such as downtown and the University of Michigan Hospital.
A three-car passenger train would make six trips during the morning rush hour and another six trips in the afternoon/evening rush hour. Each stainless steel bi-level car could carry between 500 to 600 people per trip. Cooper claims it would take about 20 minutes one way, saving commuters about 45 minutes in transport time. He estimates the cost to passengers could be kept in line with what they pay for gas. The city also has an enthusiastic partner in Great Lakes Central Railroad, which is willing to set up the service and provide the trains.
But there are hurdles. MDOT, which owns the track, has yet to make a decision on the proposal. The track requires some minor repair work so it can accommodate passenger trains. Cooper estimates it would cost $1.5 million to get the line up and running for six months. He said that number is too big for the city to cover but could be easily done by the state, especially since initial estimates of widening U.S. 23 are pegged at $500 million.
"The real question is where are the funds going to be found for the modest capital investment to straighten the rail?" Cooper said. "It works fine for freight rail but passenger rail needs a smoother ride."
Getting the line up and running could be done in a relatively short time. Cooper and Mike Bagwell, president and CEO of Great Lakes Central Railroad, believe the track could be straightened and service set up in about 60 days. Cooper believes the line would be a success if it could handle 1,000 passengers a day. That could significantly help lesson congestion and reduce ozone, carbon monoxide and greenhouse emissions by as much as 58 tons a day by taking that many cars off the road.
"We think all of Michigan could benefit from more commuter rail transit alternative for the general public," Bagwell said.
But the concept does have its skeptics. Tim Hoeffner, an MDOT administrator helping make the decision, said it’s “not very likely” the proposed commuter line will get off the ground. He pointed out how the northern station of the line is still in the construction zone and people are not used to taking the train.
Connecting to Metro Detroit
There is still hope for commuter rail in southeastern Michigan, however. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is working on establishing a basic commuter rail service between Detroit and Ann Arbor by the end of this year. The temporary starter line would utilize existing tracks to connect Metro Airport to Detroit, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Dearborn. It’s possible it could also connect Royal Oak, Troy/Birmingham and Pontiac. It’s a line that Ann Arbor has been championing for years.
The proposed line would connect Metro Airport to seven of Metro Detroit’s most vibrant downtowns, five of its largest sports stadiums, four of its major universities and two of the Big Three’s headquarters, among other significant institutions.
"It is unprecedented in Southeast Michigan," Cooper said. "It’s only out-of-the-box thinking when you look at what we have seen in this community in the last 20 years."
That has meant a complete concentration on road building and little to no attention to trains. Most other major metro areas in the world have taken the opposite approach, promoting both road and rail transportation options.
Nowhere is Metro Detroit’s dearth of options more evident than in trying to get to Metro Airport. There is no rapid transit system connecting to Metro Airport, unlike most major airports in the world. Most of them utilize light-rail, commuter-rail or bus-rapid-transit lines. Only two SMART bus lines stop at the airport.
Effective mass transit systems that offer a variety of options have traditionally created significant energy and real-estate value. They are often linked to economic growth and encouraging greater cooperation between connected communities. The proposed commuter rail line between Detroit and Ann Arbor could be the first domino to fall, bringing Metro Detroit up to speed with the rest of the world.
"There's no reason why we can't have all of these areas connected by comfortable and convenient trains," Owens said. "The transit invetsment we make today will have an affect for decades to come."
Jon Zemke is a Detroit-based freelance writer who also contributes to Model D.
People Mover tracks in downtown Detroit
People Mover tracks in downtown Detroit
Photographs by Dave Krieger - All Rights Reserved