Closely Watched Trains
The trouble with WALLY
Mayor Hieftje was brimming with optimism when he unveiled his ambitious plan for a train to Howell in the summer of 2006.
"No passenger train had run the route in decades," he recalls. "I wanted to demonstrate it could be done.
"I had been working with our staff on the idea of a north-south rail line for over a year before Great Lakes Central took over the rights to the rail line north of Ann Arbor in the spring of 2006," he continues. "This opened the door to making something happen--Lou Ferris of Great Lakes Central Railroad was an obvious partner."
Hieftje is the kind of guy who gets excited by green technology, from the solar panels at the Farmers' Market to the living roof planned atop the City Hall addition. Though Ferris's main business is financial services, the Superior Township resident also has a strong interest in commuter trains: he not only bought the railroad that hauls freight on the state-owned tracks north of town, he purchased dozens of passenger cars as well.
While Ferris put together the train, Hieftje sent out invitations to sixty local leaders. And on June 15, 2006, the mayor, the entrepreneur, and their guests boarded at Traver Road for a ride to Eight Mile Road in Whitmore Lake.
The train looked like the real thing--even the cars were stainless steel double-deckers retired from Chicago's METRA system. The demonstration was so convincing, in fact, that it was easy to imagine that regular service was just around the corner. Early in 2007, GLCR president Mike Bagwell told the Observer that "WALLY" (the "Washtenaw and Livingston Line") could be carrying passengers that summer.
Instead, two years later, WALLY is stuck on a siding. The reasons for that are a lesson in the realities of twenty-first-century transportation.
Ferris's GLCR was glad to operate the proposed train--but it wasn't about to underwrite its losses. So Hieftje and county commissioner Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) helped put together a "WALLY coalition" that included representatives
from Howell, Northfield Township, and the U-M, as well as Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.
Conspicuously missing from the list: conservative Livingston County, where about two-thirds of the line would run. Its commission voted against joining Washtenaw in forming an authority to oversee the project. Eventually, the coalition persuaded the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to take on that role. But AATA, too, was wary of taking financial responsibility--especially as the costs of the project kept mounting.
Consultant R.L. Banks, hired to come up with a business plan, concluded that trains running on the existing beat-up tracks would be too slow to attract riders. And since the tracks belong to the Michigan Department of Transportation, not GLCR, the company had no incentive to spend the $32.5 million the consultant estimated would be needed to bring them up to speed.
More money would be needed to comply with the Americans with Disability Act. Last fall, Chris White of AATA told a committee that the retired METRA cars do not meet current ADA requirements, because they lack a level boarding mechanism and other access features. According to Carolyn Grawi from the Center for Independent Living, the cars do not have accessible restrooms, either. Grawi also noted that ADA requires access within a three-quarter-mile radius around each stop--a bus to bring disabled riders to the station, for example.
And even if funds were found to fix the tracks and the cars, WALLY would still lose money. Drawing on a number of ridership surveys, the consultant estimated the train would cost $7 million to operate in its first year--but fares would bring in just $2 million. Backers will have to find a way to subsidize the other $5 million.
Irwin had hoped that Washtenaw County voters would provide that money. He estimates that a 1-mill transit levy would raise $15 million annually. So far, though, the reaction to the idea of a new tax has been lukewarm at best from the county commission, and downright hostile from Ann Arbor City Council. For now at least, with the recession, raising taxes as a funding source is an idea that's dead in the water.
Other possible funding avenues also seem blocked. Last fall, the state Senate rejected a measure that would have let local governments impose gas or sales taxes to pay for transit. And the state itself has no spare change. Its budget is already so tight that it can't even come up with the matching funds needed to collect federal grants. According to a state transportation task force report, Michigan needed $30 million in matches to federal funds for "intermodal passenger" (public transit) projects in 2008--but had only $10 million available. As a result, "Several regional rapid transit projects that have or are close to receiving FTA [Federal Transit Administration] approval will not be able to proceed."
"There's still some questions about how the capital and operating costs will get funded," acknowledges Mary Stasiak, AATA spokeswoman. "We're looking at all the options. We're still pursuing it"--a full-time AATA staffer is working on the project--but, Stasiak admits, "we're in a waiting period."
Mayor Hieftje still figures a north-south train would be a bargain compared to the cost of expanding US-23--even if it carried only a tiny fraction of the highway's traffic. "Just a thousand commuters on the train would take away the need for a [parking] structure or two," he points out, "and that would mean an avoided capital cost of $40 or $50 million. The savings just go up from there."
But parking structures are paid for with bonds financed by parking revenue--and there's no way to capture that money to pay for commuter rail.
And so WALLY waits in limbo. "I think it needs to stay on the table," says state rep Bill Rogers (R-Howell), who was involved in the early planning. But, Rogers says, "the original financial model just wasn't going to work. The locals just would not be able to fund it."
Timothy Hoeffner of the Michigan Department of Transportation says that MDOT would certainly make the tracks available to WALLY--but "no one has the money to operate it at this point."
With that financial dead-end, a proposal by Interstate Traveler seemed especially alluring. According to a front-page story in the Ann Arbor News in May, the Whitmore Lake company is offering to build a rail line from Detroit to Lansing via Ann Arbor--and to do it entirely with private money. And this would not be just any rail line. The solar-powered "maglev" train, levitated by magnets above an elevated track, would supposedly be capable of 200 mph, "going from Ann Arbor to Detroit in 10 minutes."
Too bad it will never happen. Originally developed in Germany, maglev trains are so expensive that they've never been used in Europe. The world's only commercial maglev service connects Shanghai, China's largest city, to its international airport in Pudong. The nineteen-mile line cost $1.3 billion to build in 2003 yet carries just 7,500 passengers a day--which may explain why even the world's fastest-developing county has never built another.
But that doesn't mean a Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter line will never happen. While it lacks the futuristic glamour of maglev, or the showmanship of WALLY, a more prosaic plan has quietly been moving forward.
The last commuter trains between Ann Arbor and Detroit were cancelled twenty-five years ago, when the state cut funding during its last great recession. Now the Detroit-based SEMCOG regional planning partnership is working to bring them back.
Unlike WALLY, the Ann Arbor-Detroit line would be operated by Amtrak; it would stop at the existing Amtrak stations in Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Detroit, plus new ones in Ypsilanti and near Metro Airport.
Unlike the northbound line, decrepit tracks are not a big problem for the east-west route. It gets much more traffic--from Norfolk & Southern freights as well as Amtrak's Detroit-to-Chicago passenger trains--and is in much better shape. And the capital that is needed to build the new stations, improve signaling and switching, and add some sidetracks is in reach. A total of $8 billion in federal stimulus money is designated for high-speed rail.
"We're pretty confident we'll get some if not all of [the capital needed] from the stimulus package," says Carmine Palumbo, director of transportation services for SEMCOG. In fact, at a recent meeting of the nine-state Midwest High Speed Rail Association, the Pontiac-Detroit-Chicago corridor was one of three projects recommended as priorities for the federal funds. Hoeffner, the MDOT administrator, hopes that the stimulus package could fund a high-speed rail line all the way from Detroit to Chicago. MDOT and SEMCOG are working on an application, due in early August, for stimulus funding.
Once the capital funds are found, someone will still have to underwrite the operating costs. The amount of subsidy has yet to be determined, but "we're probably going to have to pass the hat," Palumbo says. Potential sources include local municipalities, counties, MDOT, the state legislature, foundations, small federal grants, and private-sector loans or donations.
SEMCOG's pitch will emphasize potential benefits for business. The hope is "to get enough money to run for several years," Palumbo says. If it's demonstrated that there's enough ridership to sustain the line and "show it's a good investment," he says, the long-term goal is to try to get federal money to further expand and improve the tracks--and dedicated local and state funding to pay for operations.
Among the ironies of one commuter train dream being fast-tracked while others sits in the station is this: If the Ann Arbor-Detroit line does get up and running, it will be using equipment owned by Lou Ferris's Federated Capital Corporation--the same cars Ferris and Mayor Hieftje used for the demonstration ride that seemed so promising three years ago.
Additional reporting by Vivienne Armentrout
[Originally published in July, 2009.]
On July 28, 2009, Rhonda Sizemore wrote:
Excellent article. Very informative. Good work!
On July 28, 2009, George Weinhagen wrote:
Good information article on the history of rail service in this area.
A small street car type service from Howell, or Whitmore Lake area to the Industrial Park area At 94 and ellsworth (with a new civic center) could bring ridership, entertainment, business, and research to this established corridor of existing track without heavy upgrades. Barrier Free Design can be worked, but much thought and revised thinking on that matter is critical. This article is a breath of fresh air...GLW