Rail on the brink: Washtenaw County's imminent next generation of rail projects

Ann Arborites often talk about the possibility of commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit in wistful tones, as if envisioning a beautiful pipe dream. But this November's election will make that vision a very real possibility.

The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) will put a millage proposal before voters in Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties this fall to fund its transit master plan for the region. In Washtenaw County, along with bus rapid transit service from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, that plan includes Detroit-to-Ann Arbor commuter rail making eight round trips a day at speeds of up to 110 mph. The proposed service would run from Ann Arbor's Amtrak station to Detroit's New Center, making stops along the way in Depot Town, Dearborn and Westland (where BRT service would connect to Detroit Metropolitan Airport).

"That's not just out there," says Elisabeth Gerber, one of two Washtenaw County representatives on the RTA board. "That's happening if we get this millage funded, which we're very confident that we will. There's a lot of support from all levels of the public, political leadership and economic leadership in the region."

The project has become particularly feasible thanks to a political move that happened nearly four years ago, when the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) purchased 135 miles of Norfolk Southern's rail line running from Kalamazoo to Dearborn. Amtrak and several freight carriers currently use the line. Norfolk Southern drew ire in 2012 when it cut maximum speeds on the line from 79 to 30 mph, but that will change by September 2017, when MDOT is anticipated to complete a major overhaul of the line and assume dispatching responsibilities for it.

Tim Hoeffner, director of MDOT's office of rail, says MDOT has been rehabilitating the line to allow trains to travel up to 110 mph. That includes smoothing the railroad, replacing railroad ties, flattening some curves and increasing the cant of others. In some areas, including the Willow Run area in Ypsi, MDOT has added a second track so that heavy freight train activity doesn't hamstring commuter runs.

Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor's transportation manager, says that all adds up to one big change: "Freight trains no longer rule the roost."

"What that's going to do in the short term is increase reliability," Cooper says. "You can start laughing when I say that, because while the corridor is under construction there has been anything but reliable travel time…But when these investments are done and the corridor is ship-shape and what I'll call 21st-century condition...reliability should go way up."

Slow and (sometimes) steady

These now imminent developments have been a long time coming. The Michigan Executive line, which previously offered commuter service between Detroit and Ann Arbor, was discontinued in 1984. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments recommended reestablishing such a service in 2001, but it's taken over a decade for the RTA's planning and MDOT's infrastructure work to bring that concept to a point approaching fruition.

Chalk the RTA's emergence up to a changing regional mentality about the importance of transit. But, as with other rail projects in Washtenaw County and across the country, MDOT's purchase and revamp of the Norfolk Southern line is thanks in large part to President Obama's initiative to subsidize high-speed rail nationwide. The Federal Rail Administration's (FRA) High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program awarded MDOT $196.5 million to improve the line, and contributed grant funding to its purchase.

However, there have been pros and cons to the federal emphasis on rail funding–as in the case of the city of Ann Arbor's lengthy location selection process for its new train station. Although Cooper anticipates releasing a final alternatives analysis report late this spring, and an environmental analysis late this summer, he admits that a target completion date for the project is something on which he's been "quoted too many times and always been proven wrong." A $2.8 million FRA planning grant, awarded in 2012, has helped the project along financially. But according to Cooper, federal oversight has also slowed it down.

"FRA, quite frankly, prior to the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, was primarily a freight and safety regulatory agency," he says. "It's only more recently that they have been tasked with administering grants and overseeing these types of environmental reviews for capital projects, and it made it harder on us as a local government."

Bureaucratic processes are also expected to be the biggest hurdle as the city of Ypsilanti prepares to undertake a train station study of its own. In March the city approved up to $2 million to fund the design and construction of a new train station. Although an FRA grant is not yet involved in that project (a search for grants and other additional funding is underway), Beth Ernat, the city's director of economic development, says that FRA, MDOT and Norfolk Southern's differing design requirements are the biggest challenge to developing a station plan. A new Ypsi station is contingent upon MDOT approval of a finished plan, so the project is far from a done deal. But Ernat is hopeful that the station will serve as the Depot Town stop for RTA's Detroit-to-Ann Arbor line.

"I think the community is positive," she says. "We would support, in any way that we could, both the commuter rail as well as the passenger rail."

Challenges ahead

Although prospects are looking bright for RTA's commuter rail plan, some challenges still await that project as well. Cooper notes that Ann Arbor's Amtrak station is the busiest train station in the state, an indication that Ann Arborites are "very familiar with rail transport" and therefore likely to support more of it. But an RTA millage will require majority approval in each of the four counties the RTA serves, and some are likely to be much less supportive than Washtenaw County. Gerber notes that population density in northern Macomb County and northern Oakland County is "just not high enough to support a lot of transit," so the millage is a tough sell to already fiscally conservative voters there.

Gerber says the RTA will be "in overdrive" until November, trying to make the case to those voters that better transit across the four-county area will have economic benefits for all voters by making it easier for folks to get to and from jobs.

"We just haven't had that conversation in our region yet," she says. "Many regions have. Any region that has been through this process has overcome that hurdle. It's always the case that there are more people who are not going to personally use transit than there are those who will use it, but there are benefits to everybody even if you're not a transit rider."

Cooper notes that it's also worth looking beyond our regional picture. High-speed improvements to the Norfolk Southern line don't end at Ann Arbor; they'll extend all the way west to Kalamazoo. Further west, Amtrak trains are already authorized to go up to 110 mph from Kalamazoo to Porter, Ind. With the improved track infrastructure and without Norfolk Southern's speed restrictions, Cooper envisions rail becoming the "preferred method" to travel from Detroit to Chicago and points in between.

"A direct, downtown-to-downtown train ride at 100 mph is competitive, and there's enough travel and economic activity between the metropolitan areas that if you're able to capture a few extra percent, you then double and triple the amount of rail ridership," he says.

In the meantime, though, there's still a millage to be approved, 16 more months of construction to be done and an as yet unspecified period of time to establish new commuter service after that. Even with multiple new projects moving forward in Washtenaw County and across the state, rail is still a waiting game.

"None of this has ever occurred at a pace that any of us who would like to ride the rails is comfortable with," Cooper says. "But time takes time, and this is a lot more complicated than putting a bus on the street, stopping at a corner and picking people up."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate andMetromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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