The Great Train Station Debate
Mayor Hieftje pitches a transit center
For the first time since taking office in 2000, mayor John Hieftje faces a skeptical city council. In two successive primaries, Second Ward voters turned out two of his closest allies, Stephen Rapundalo and Tony Derezinski. Adding in the retirements last year of Sandy Smith and Carsten Hohnke, the so-called "council party" now has just four reliable votes on the eleven-member council--and that's counting the mayor's own.
Consigned to a minority, Hieftje might've sidelined or at least scaled backed his latest initiative: replacing the current Amtrak station on Depot St. with an all-new train station cum transit center, most likely located on Fuller Rd. next to the U-M Medical Center.
But when asked what's next on his agenda, the seven-term mayor replies without hesitating. "The transit center. It's such a good idea, the public will demand it!"
Looking ahead, Hieftje sees more Ann Arborites riding the rails. The federal government, he points out, has bought the track between Detroit and Chicago and is upgrading it to permit much faster intercity train travel. And that's just the beginning. "Imagine a train that's going to pull people out to the airport," Hieftje continues. "Imagine a [commuter] train like they use on the East Coast, with double-decker cars and Wi-Fi. That's how young people want to get to work. They don't want to drive!"
The vision of a new station to serve these potential riders is so real to Hieftje that he mixes tenses. "Ann Arbor will get $30 million from the federal government for the station. We could put in as little as $3 million, and we can partner with MDOT [the Michigan Department of Transportation] and AATA and the university for part of that."
Three years ago, Hieftje told the Observer that the version of the project then under consideration could be built without tapping the city's general fund. But that plan collapsed last year when the city couldn't come up with the required matching funds from other sources. In October, council
voted to cover the city's share of a new $3.2 million study by drawing $550,000 from its general fund reserves.
Despite the mayor's optimism, he hasn't always been eager to take the issue to the voters. The Fuller Rd. site, currently a U-M parking lot, is legally city parkland--and the city charter forbids the sale of parks without a popular vote. To dodge that, the original plan would have leased, rather than sold, the property.
Hieftje says a vote isn't legally necessary this time, either, since the city would be repurposing and not selling the land. But it appears to be the project's only chance. The mayor is turning to the people now, says Third Ward councilmember Steve Kunselman, because "he's lost the majority control of council."
A former real estate agent, the mayor offers an enthusiastic pitch for the new station. "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity," Hieftje says. "There's $400 million coming to Michigan from the feds--Amtrak is fixing the line between Chicago and Detroit for 100-miles-per-hour service, and new cars and new engines have been ordered. They're talking to us about adding two more trains--we have three now, and that'd bring us up to five trains daily--because they foresee a doubling of ridership in the next ten years.
"In addition, MDOT bought a train and is set to go with a commuter route," he says. Well, not quite set to go. No one has yet stepped forward to fund commuter rail, so MDOT's only immediate plans for the equipment are to show it off in some demonstration runs later this year. "But the Amtrak service is the big reason," the mayor emails. "Even with their current undependable service, AMTRAK is outgrowing the station, and they will need a new station before long. It already overflows on busy days and it absolutely will not work for commuters, as it is very hard for buses given the design and the traffic jams on Depot at rush hour."
Third Ward councilmember Christopher Taylor agrees. "The current train station is already inadequate for the current number of passengers that use it. The parking is inadequate, and the access to mass transit is limited. All professionals who have considered the question agree."
But Taylor's Third Ward colleague Steve Kunselman--who has a master's in urban planning--isn't sold. "Ann Arbor needs to plan for a new station," he concedes, "but we could get by for a few more years with the current station. And high-speed rail? There's still a huge amount of work to be done, and we're years away in terms of reliability. We're a long way before commuter rail would make any logical sense."
Second Ward councilmember Jane Lumm is even more dubious. "Ann Arbor has a train station at a good location, between downtown and the U-M hospital complex," Lumm emails. "It does not take the proverbial rocket scientist to know that renovation of the existing site would be substantially less expensive than all-new."
So why not simply rebuild the station on Depot? "There are floodway issues," Hieftje replies. "When Depot St. floods, it gets up to two feet of water. Another big issue is the size. There's not enough room for parking and no room for buses. The new station will have bays for buses for connections with the AATA and the university's bus system, and there's no room for that at the current location."
"The site is not at all pre-determined," writes Taylor in an email, "but [the Fuller Road site's] advantages are based on fact and so no one should be surprised if it becomes the recommended location."
Hiefje emails that the site became a parking lot twenty years ago. The city "was putting in a new road, as I recall to serve the area of Veterans Hospital, and the only route was through 5 acres of old oaks. There was a lot of resistance to this in the community. The U-M was approached, and they offered alternative land that they owned for the road to go on.
"In exchange they said they would like to lease the field below the hospital for parking. The people, the Parks Commission, and the City Council all agreed. The university paved the lot, they have been leasing it since 1993, and the oaks and natural land were saved. The lease dollars stay in the park system, as would revenues from a new train station. I don't know why the Parks Commission would ever want the land back. They don't have to mow it, instead they make money on it, and there is plenty of open space in that area of town."
The original plan would have combined the transit center with a city-university parking structure. With the U-M about to break ground on a parking structure on Wall St., that collaboration is now off the table--but according to spokesperson Jim Kosteva, "the university continues to support the vision of an intermodal facility."
Kosteva and Hieftje say the transit center is needed in part to accommodate a growing workforce. According to U.S. Census data and city employment statistics, there were 97,500 jobs in town in 2002, and 105,800 in 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available. That's an increase of 8.5 percent despite the Great Recession. More significantly, the number of people who commute to jobs in the city grew from 69,900 in 2002 to 81,350 in 2010. And 96 percent of those commuters get here by car.
"When people look at the growth of congestion in town, it's not population, it's jobs that's creating it," says Hieftje. "Ann Arbor's growing jobs. Some people are predicting we might have a labor shortage by 2014. To keep growing, we're either going to have more congestion and air pollution and building of parking structures, or we're going to have to expand commuting by bus and train. We don't have the room for that much more housing. We've got a population of about 114,000 now, and 120,000 is the outside limit."
Christopher Taylor, an attorney, agrees with the mayor that the city could redevelop the Fuller site without a public vote because it "is still public land and will still be owned by the city." But, he says, "it's too important a question to allow people to play politics with it, and to date that's what's happened. Once a final plan is created and the financing is identified, people will see the benefits."
And Hieftje says the city can't afford to wait. With the Obama administration committed to expanding high-speed rail, the feds already are paying for most of the current engineering and environmental study. Once that's done, the mayor says, "the city will go back for the rest." But, he adds, "it is logical to think that if the city were to say no to this funding, we will be stuck with the current station for decades to come."
Taylor recognizes that the station has opponents but dismisses them by paraphrasing Lincoln: "There are some people who are opposed to some things, some people who are opposed to other things, and some people who are opposed to everything." When the vote does come, he predicts, "it will pass, and by large numbers."
Steve Kunselman isn't necessarily opposed to a new train station, but he sees no hurry and isn't sold on the Fuller site. "The MichCon site [across the tracks from the current station] has several features that make it more appropriate for a train station. It's already there, and some of the property is already owned by Amtrak. We could eminent-domain it and pay them fair market value, and, considering the site, we could probably get a pretty good deal.
"The mayor is only focused on the one [Fuller] site because of the parking," Kunselman continues. But he says the idea that new parking there would benefit railroad passengers is "grossly wrong. All that parking is competing with hospital visitors' parking, and it'll lose. Look at the Fuller Rd. lots now: they're all full during the day."
More fundamentally, Kunselman questions the employment justification for the project. "Any future job growth is speculation," he says. "We just can't expect thousands and thousands of new jobs in the next five years."
Lumm's concerns also extend beyond rebuilding or replacement. "I believe the train station project needs to be considered in the context of all of the city's transportation-related initiatives as well as in the context of all of the city's priorities," she emails.
"Is a new train station more important than connectors, county-wide bus transportation, or commuter trains? Is funding alternative transportation more important than funding public safety and other basic services? Based on their actions, it would appear the answer is yes for many of my colleagues, but not for me--I believe that we need to get basic services right first. Instead of signing a blank check for up to another half million dollars, Council should hit pause to make sure we do this right."
The Ann Arbor / Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce supports the transit center, citing economic and environmental benefits. But the local Sierra Club, which often has been at odds with Hieftje, opposes the new station--at least on Fuller Rd. "Generally we're in support of rail transit," explains local chair Nancy Shiffler, "and it may be that there is a need for expanded or upgraded rail transit. In this case, our specific objection is to the repurposing of parkland. It doesn't make sense to have a station there. Our inclination is that the city [should] use the existing site, and we want to make sure that happens."
Shiffler allows that "the current station would need some upgrading with the waiting room space and things like that, and also find different ways to manage the parking." But, she contends, "flooding is not necessarily an issue. You could design a building that would account for that."
"It's really pretty straightforward," says Steve Kunselman. "Ridership has leveled out. We won't need an improved station until ridership shows signs of picking up."
Though the number of folks who commute to town by rail is negligible compared with those who come by car, it has risen lately. As recently as 2004, ridership at the Ann Arbor station was just 107,000--scarcely changed from when it opened twenty years earlier. But for the last five years, it has averaged 140,000, on the same number of trains. While Kunselman is right that the growth has leveled off, there's no question that right now, the federal Department of Transportation has money to spend on train stations. "Look at Dearborn," says the mayor. "They're getting $28.2 million dollars from the feds for a new station." With its plans for bike racks, Wi-Fi, and easy access, the Dearborn station was approved by MDOT last year, and construction began in September.
It'll be up to the local voters whether or not Ann Arbor follows Dearborn's lead. Since they just returned Hieftje to office with 85 percent of the vote, the mayor has reason to hope. But with arts and library millages defeated and a parks millage approved in the same election, he also has reason to fear.
Kunselman, for one, says he won't wait for the station vote to take on the mayor. His council term is up this year, he notes, so "I have to get through 2013 first. But if Mayor Hieftje runs again [in 2014], I'll run against him!"
[Originally published in February, 2013.]