Blog: Eli Cooper

Used to be that all roads led to private autos but now with the Ann Arbor City Council's commitment to a Complete Streets program, roadblocks to alternative transport are buckling. Eli Cooper, Ann Arbor's transportation program manager, writes on how Washtenaw's county's working of more lanes for moto, bike, bus, rail, and foot travel means a road map redesign by 2041.

Post 4: Train commute talk isn't just whistling Dixie

What is the romance with rail transportation anyway?  Why is our community focusing so much attention to travel by rail?  Whether it is commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit, or Ann Arbor and Howell (affectionately known as Wally), or the high-speed rail corridor linking Michigan cities, including Detroit and Ann Arbor, with Chicago and a network of other major Midwestern cities, there is a buzz about traveling by rail!

Okay, rail travel is relatively pleasant and easy to understand. Purchase a ticket or monthly pass, arrive at the station, climb aboard a large rail car, find a comfortable seat, sit down, plug in your iPod or link to a wireless connection, and get to business, both literally and figuratively.  I don't know about you, but traveling on our roadways this winter has me thinking about other travel options.  How much snow can you move off the drive and sidewalks? How many close-calls are needed on local roadways? What about walking over piles of snow and icy sidewalks?   (Don't even think about the rising numbers at the gas pump!) Sitting in a warm train car sounds inviting and a lot less complicated. Sure, train travel is not for everyone, but for commuting and regional trips, rail travel is hard to beat.

Rail is also a relatively less expensive option.  I know, hearing about the millions and billions of dollars needed to get nationwide high speed rail system up and running seems daunting.  But let's break it down.  To provide commuter rail service in Ann Arbor, planners and engineers are looking at existing railroad corridors.  We are not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars needed to buy land, then design and build whole new systems. Just use existing tracks and their underutilized capacity!  Can you find underutilized capacity on our community's or region's vehicle roadways?   Perhaps, but there is less room on our roads today than yesterday, and with tens of thousands of new jobs being created in our community, that excess road capacity, if it exists, will quickly disappear!  Meanwhile, the rails sit there, waiting to be put to good use.

But do trains make sense to today's lifestyle? In the early twenty-first century, in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County people commute to their jobs primarily in cars, especially if their trips are coming from outside of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Within the Ann Arbor-Ypsi area our local AATA bus company provides excellent transit service options.   However, regional transportation statistics tell us there are tens of thousands of commuters traveling back and forth daily on I-94, M-14, US-23, and to and from Ann Arbor's homes and workplaces from the many communities well beyond AATA's reach.  That there is a regional travel market waiting to be served is abundantly clear to anyone that cares to look.   Many jobs in our immediate community are concentrated in and around Ann Arbor's downtown and campus areas.  The commuters driving to work not only congest our regional highways but also clog our local streets and parking options.   

Rail travel can bring people, not cars, to town where they can rely on their feet, bicycles, or buses to make that short connection to their final destination--all without taking up space on our roads or adding to the demand on our parking facilities!   We have not seen this type of transportation in our town in a long, long time, making it harder to see and understand, but it does work! A quick look at a nearby region, metropolitan Chicago, provides evidence that American people use and enjoy rail travel.

Combining the high cost of maintaining our highways and roadways, the need for expanded travel capacity, and the ability to use our existing transportation systems more effectively, provides strong support for advancing a rail program.   Still need more convincing? An earlier study anticipated an investment of $500 million to add one lane in each direction to accommodate more cars along the US-23 corridor between Ann Arbor and Brighton.   And we're talking about building road capacity for cars that slip and slide in the winter, bang into each other, injuring and killing people, not to consider all of the other associated costs.  This post's intent is not to bash the auto system.  It serves us well.  But for our community and economy to fare better, we need more options providing additional choices for travelers.   More folks traveling in different ways will serve to reduce the burden on all of our travel systems, making getting around easier for everybody.  

MDOT is working with Great Lakes Central Railroad, a Michigan business, refurbishing railcars to provide initial service.  This effort has already created new jobs in Michigan, and it capitalizes on lower-cost rolling stock – another prudent and cost-efficient approach to get started.  So, we're basically talking about running low cost, high quality, renewed rail cars on existing tracks.

This is the opportunity rail represents:  More travel options along key travel corridors, at a fraction of the cost of other choices. Next time you are sitting in your car on a congested roadway looking to get to work (or anywhere else for that matter), think how nice it would be for you to be sitting on a comfortable train, napping, texting, or reading as you travel.  On the flip side of this equation, what if your best option is to drive and you could magically move thousands of other drivers onto a train and out of your way, making your trip a little less stressful?   So join me in shouting "All Aboard" and help make rail travel a reality!  

Tomorrow: Transportation Map for 2041