A design for a planned town-gown transit station on Fuller Road at East Medical Drive could be ready as early as this month. But Ann Arbor residents looking at drawings of the Fuller Road Station may still wonder what’s in it for them.

In fact, the first phase–a $40 million parking structure with more than 1,000 spaces–has little immediate payoff for the city.

That’s not true for the University of Michigan: its share of the cost–$31.2 million–will buy 800 new parking spaces right next to the parking-starved Medical Center (though 200 spaces in a surface lot on the site would be lost). The city would get 200-plus spaces, but those public spots, too, are likely to be used, at least at first, by Medical Center staff.

Yet even as city council faces another round of painful cuts in the city’s operating budget, it’s agreed to raise $8.8 million in capital for Phase 1 of the transit station–so called because it also will have bicycle parking and U-M and AATA bus stops. For city officials, though, the big prize is the parking. They see it as an essential step toward Phase 2–a new $24 million train station to serve both Amtrak and a new commuter rail line linking Ann Arbor with Metro Airport and Detroit.

In effect, the city is making an $8.8 million bet that parking cars is the key to improved train travel. “This is the down payment to lure additional transportation investment,” says Eli Cooper, transportation program manager for the city.

“All of us are concerned about the economy,” Cooper acknowledges. “Clearly there are pressures, but this project is being considered for its long-term benefit. I believe these assets are an investment that will be used for generations.”

Mayor John Hieftje says that everything from the Obama administration’s commitment to rail to Amtrak’s interest in better local facilities points to success for the project. Still, the mayor admits, the idea of building parking now to lure a hoped-for future train station requires “a bit of a leap of faith.”

Discussed in broad strokes at least as long ago as 2006, the plan for Fuller Road Station imagines perhaps thousands of passengers on daily Detroit-to-Ann Arbor commuter trains arriving and departing within walking distance of the medical center.

The location is important, Cooper says. “Transportation planners talk about a ‘one-seat ride,’ meaning mass transit that doesn’t require making a connection. At Fuller, we have 20,000 workers within a quarter-mile of their destinations–the medical center or Wall Street.”

Thousands of U-M employees live along the commuter train corridor, and the university has a strong incentive to encourage alternative transit rather than spending $45,000 per space to build parking, says Jim Kosteva, U-M’s director of community relations. And Cooper says those numbers will help make the case for the commuter rail service now being developed by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). Running between Ann Arbor and Detroit, it will include stops in Dearborn, Detroit Metro Airport, and Ypsilanti and is scheduled to begin on a trial basis this fall.

At Amtrak’s Chicago office, spokesman Mark Magliari says the national rail service is more than ready to work with the city. Parking at its current station on Depot Street is neither convenient nor sufficient for future growth, he says. Some 133,450 passengers used Amtrak service in Ann Arbor last year.

Amtrak needs seventy-five parking spaces for its current passenger load. If Fuller Road Station replaced its Depot Street station, its 200-plus public spots should be plenty to serve Amtrak’s needs plus SEMCOG’s commuter line.

Although council has agreed to raise the $8.8 million for Phase 1, the only city expenditures so far are $325,000 for design and engineering work. Officials tapped street, alternate transportation, economic development, and wastewater funds to cover that. (The wastewater funding will go toward relocating infrastructure on the site, Cooper says.) But that’s barely a down payment on the whole project. Even with the university paying 78 percent of the cost, if both phases are built, the city’s share will be more than $14 million.

At a time when falling property values and state-shared revenues have the city looking at eliminating services, that may sound somewhere between impossible and irresponsible. Yet Mayor Hieftje says that the general fund budget crisis needn’t stall the Fuller Road project. “There’s no general fund money involved,” he says. “We never planned to use any.”

The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority might well be asked to provide funding, Hieftje says. “It’s right up the AATA’s alley. It will increase their ridership, and they have money they could use.” One option was to tap funds set aside for renovating or replacing the Blake Transit Center downtown. But the agency’s board decided in December to build a new center on the existing site. (Although the transportation authority operates apart from city hall, its board of directors is appointed by the mayor with City Council approval.)

The mayor isn’t fazed by the decision, noting that AATA may still be able to secure federal funds for the project. The city already has applied for $40 million in federal funding–money that, if granted, would pay not only for Phase 2 but parts of Phase 1 as well.

Heiftje also hopes to tap the Obama administration’s financial stimulus program. “We just heard announcements about [federal funding for] more infrastructure projects,” says the mayor. “We’re ready with this and the [Stadium Boulevard] bridges.”

The preliminary cost estimates of $64 million for the whole project are generally solid, but contingencies will be added, Cooper says. He shares the mayor’s optimism about finding grants to pay the city’s share.

“The resources are likely going to be available,” Cooper says. “I try to be cautious because I don’t want to have disappointment if it takes a few years” to find funding for Phase 2–which is when the city hopes to see its payoff in improved mass transit.

Hieftje notes that since the city owns the Fuller Road Station site, its value may be credited toward the $8.8 million it owes for Phase 1. If the assumptions made in a 2004 appraisal still hold–admittedly, a big if–the land alone could be worth more than $1 million.

“The finances are being worked on,” says the mayor. “Finding money for a capital project isn’t daunting.”