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Sierra Club's Nancy Shiffler at the Ann Arbor train station

A New Train Station At Last?

After a decade of talk, voters could decide next year.

by James Leonard

From the October, 2015 issue

Does Ann Arbor need a new train station to replace the thirty-two-year-old Amtrak station on Depot St.? Informed opinion runs the gamut.

"There isn't an immediate need," says Fourth Ward councilmember Jack Eaton. "It probably handles what it gets." The First Ward's Sabra Briere agrees. "We can handle the six trains a day, three in each direction." But she adds, "it's not the most charming of train stations and not the most conveniently located, and it doesn't have the best access to transit."

"There is a need," says Rita Mitchell, spokesperson for Protect A2 Parks. "The station is extremely busy." Nancy Shiffler, chair of the Sierra Club Huron Valley Group, allows that "there are some inadequacies" at the station on Depot, including the fact that if you park your car in the long-term lot off Broadway, "You have to schlep your suitcases up over the Broadway Bridge."

"We're for a new train station," says Ecology Center director Mike Garfield. "The current station is inadequate for the heavy traffic it already gets." City transportation planner Eli Cooper agrees. "The service today overwhelms the current facility. We have 150,000 people come through [annually]. We've got people filling every seat in the waiting area and standing on the platform. The rest rooms aren't even ADA compliant."

"Ann Arbor's station is too small," agrees Marc Magliari, Amtrak's government affairs spokesperson from Chicago. "There's not enough parking, and there's already a lot of demand. Three trains a day is not enough."

Amtrak is preparing to roll out newer and faster trains that it predicts will eventually double the number of riders in Michigan. But whether those trains arrive at a new Ann Arbor station is up to Ann Arbor voters. Once the Federal Rail Administration announces its preferred site this fall, the city will schedule hearings leading up to a vote next year.

That a new train station is being considered at all is due largely to the efforts of former seven-term mayor John Hieftje.

"I started talking

...continued below...


about rail when I ran for office the first time," he says, looking very relaxed over a cup of tea at Espresso Royale on State St. Envisioning trains as a solution to congestion and pollution, Hieftje first went to Lansing to talk to the Michigan Department of Transportation about rail in 2002. "In '05 we hired Eli Cooper and began to look into it in earnest."

Hieftje's quest inevitably led him to Amtrak. The National Passenger Rail Corporation was formed in 1971 on the ruins of the bankrupt Penn Central. By then, the struggling railroad had already sold its stone station on Depot St. to the Gandy Dancer restaurant. Amtrak passengers camped out in a former freight building until the current station was built in 1983.

According to Hieftje, "Amtrak has always thought that Ann Arbor's station was inferior and inadequate for future growth. It's the busiest train station in the state. They call it the Ann Arbor Double-Wide."

More than 144,000 passengers passed through the Ann Arbor station last year. Though that was down slightly from 2013, station supporters predict rapid growth starting in 2017, when the state completes track work to enable faster speeds and Amtrak rolls out new equipment.

While the existing station meets current needs, Briere says, "there is a significant projected need." Over the next twenty years, emails MDOT communications manager Michael Frezell, the plan is to go from three trains each way beween Pontiac and Chicago to ten.

"Wherever we add service, we get more riders," says Amtrak's Magliari. "We doubled in Illinois in a year, and we've tripled since '06. The more frequent the trains, the better for passengers, and travel time will decline as trains are added."

The city, MDOT, and the Federal Rail Administration are poised to enter "a new era of train service," say Hieftje. "Amtrak is looking at a 10 to 20 percent increase in the trains in the first two years [after they roll out the new equipment], and then very quickly a 50 percent, then in ten years doubling how many people use the train."

The feds and MDOT have already invested half a billion dollars of federal stimulus money to buy and improve the line between Pontiac and Chicago to accommodate trains traveling at 110 mph. The feds also have programs in place that could pay 80 percent of a new train station's cost. "This kind of opportunity comes around every thirty-five to forty years," says Hieftje.

"We support increased trains," says the Sierra Club's Shiffler. "If ridership increases, we'd like to see something done." But, she adds, if a federally mandated study recommends putting the station on a parking lot below the U-M Hospital on Fuller Road, her group would probably object.

That's because the site is still part of the Ann Arbor parks system. The city agreed to lease it to the U-M more than twenty years ago as part of a deal that rerouted a stretch of Fuller near the VA Hospital to save a group of landmark trees. "What kind of precedent would be set," Shiffler asks, "that says you can repurpose any city parkland?"

---

The study's final report hasn't been released, but Cooper has already seen a draft. While he won't say which site it recommends, he notes that it looked at four options: rebuild at the current location, buy and renovate the Gandy Dancer, or build a new station, either on North Main or at the city-owned parking lot on Fuller. "North Main was dismissed last fall," he says, "and the Gandy Dancer has way too many problems," leaving Depot and Fuller.

Shiffler favors Depot. "There's been a train station there for over a hundred years. It's best [for] transit-oriented development [because] it's got the whole Lower Town area and the DTE lot [off Broadway]. It's close to downtown, to M-14."

"The existing site is excellent," agrees Rita Mitchell of Protect A2 Parks. "Bus routes service may not be great [but] could be improved by rescheduling and rerouting. It's easy to navigate, and getting to and from Main St. is easy."

Not always, says Hieftje: when shifts change at the U-M medical center, there's "a traffic jam all the way out to Main St. and up towards 23 and all the way to the hospital." And he doesn't see a way to reconfigure Depot St. for more traffic: "It'd be a major engineering project and a major government land grab."

Transportation chief Cooper is firm. "Depot St. is a two-lane road. We're not about to widen it, eat up part of [Wheeler Park], and take down new buildings or historic buildings."

Hieftje sees a partial solution: build a new station on the DTE lot. "You could have a lot of economic development around this site. You could put in a hotel, conference space, a restaurant on the river." The tradeoff is that "if you're going to have a new station there, you're going to have to bring the traffic in off of Broadway"--causing "more congestion on the Broadway Bridge."

Some see similar problems with the Fuller Rd. site. "That area is already pretty busy," says Ward 4 councilmember Jack Eaton. "Adding transportation will add to the congestion."

"Congestion there is detrimental to the hospital and parks if you think about idling trains and buses across from [the Fuller] swimming pool and a park," says Shiffler. "In terms of transit-oriented development, there isn't any [potential] there."

"Fuller is one of the densest traffic corridors in the state [with] its own peak-hour problems," Cooper acknowledges. "There are over 30,000 current transit riders on public and university buses. But [it's] a four-lane boulevard, [and] we can create capacity immediately adjacent to the proposed site."

Hieftje sees another advantage to Fuller: "There are over 30,000 people who go to the hospital complex every day. When U-M looked at their zip codes, there were 15,000 people who work for the U-M who live near the train tracks all the way to Detroit. At Fuller you would have a ready-made audience."

Mayor Christopher Taylor favors Fuller. "It is a fact that the Fuller Rd. site is a better location," he says, "because it has more room for trains and platforms, because of its proximity to the most-visited location in the county, because of proximity to the densest employment center in the county, and because of its proximity to an artery suitable for mass transit."

"I prefer Fuller because of the proximity to the hospital," concurs the Ecology Center's Garfield. Noting that he helped "negotiate the land swap which saved the North Campus oak trees in exchange for U-M's use of parkland as a parking lot," Garfield says that the city "should not repurpose parkland for other purposes without voter approval. Given the circumstances, though, turning that 'parkland' into a train station would be an excellent use of the land, and voters should approve it."

Sabra Briere says she supports building a new station, but "I'm agnostic about where it goes."

Eaton and Shiffler are not agnostic--they don't want a station on Fuller. "I oppose taking parkland and using it for other purposes," says Eaton. While he'd "love to have a gorgeous new train station," he says, "we've neglected our infrastructure. Flooding problems are a higher priority."

"Our concern from the beginning was building on parkland," says Shiffler. "Parkland by the river in and of itself is of value, and once we lose [it] we'll never get it back. We don't see any other benefit to that area of the town other than people can ride the train and walk to the university ...

"The main thing is who do you want the station to serve? Are we building the station for the university or the city as a whole?"

"If the people encouraging it have done a good job of explaining it and writing it for the ballot, then people will vote 'yes' or 'no' with no problem," Briere predicts. "If they've done a bad job, they'll vote no because any time people are confused about the outcome, they [think] 'why should I do this?'"

Taylor isn't worried. "I believe the people will support it," he says, "because people are excited about expanded train service."

What Will It Cost?

-----

What Will It Cost?

After its location, the biggest questions about a new Ann Arbor train station are what it would cost-and who will pay for it.

"There's a parking need for nine hundred vehicles from Amtrak intercity passenger rail service," says city transportation planner Eli Cooper. "At $30,000 a parking space, that's about thirty million. Plus we have to build station platforms, [and] vertical circulation [for] both sides of the track, so we're looking at a range of forty to sixty million."

Where will that come from? "Our grant application calls for 80 percent federal money," says Cooper. Who'll cover the other $8 to $12 million?

"If we're talking about the Fuller site, when the assessor tells the FRA [Federal Rail Administration] what the land value is for that site, that could be part of the 20 percent," says councilmember Sabra Briere. "If we're talking about Depot, the site is owned by Amtrak. But DTE wants to build a hotel, a conference center, and a restaurant [on its neighboring property] so they could put in 20 percent of the cost."

"MDOT may have a piece of it," Cooper adds. "There are transit intermodal pieces that might serve both AAATA and university buses as well as Greyhounds. There's going to be an Amtrak presence, and they're going to be assigned a fee."

Whatever the city's share, Hieftje predicts that it will be manageable in the general fund budget with no new taxes. "I don't know why people would vote against it," he says.

Parks advocates may do just that, though, if the FRA recommends building on the Fuller site (see main story). And they're a formidable force in Ann Arbor politics; the most recent parks millage renewal, in 2012, passed by an overwhelming 68-32 percent margin.

But mass transit has strong support, too. Despite well-funded opposition, last year's AAATA expansion millage passed by an even-more-overwhelming 71-29 percent. When Ann Arborites vote, they may have to balance between two deeply held values.

---

Train numbers

To the Observer:

Thank you for your October article on the possible locations for a new train station for Ann Arbor. I have always been curious about the claims of those favoring the Fuller Park site stating that a commuter rail system could serve the "over 30,000 people who go to the hospital complex everyday" (former Mayor Hieftje as quoted in the article), in particular, "the 15,000 people who work for the U-M who live near the train tracks all the way to Detroit."

When you are considering the number of employees who would be served by commuter rail, you have to take into account how many live near the rail line and, of those, how many would actually use the train. In the case of UM employees (some 39,000 based on UM 2010 zip code data), you should subtract those that live in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti zip codes (about half) and who would be more likely to use buses, cars, bikes or foot travel rather than trains. Additionally those that live in north/south directions should be subtracted out. That leaves at best a pool of about 10% of employees (about 3800 depending on where you draw the lines) who live in an east/west direction and are potential riders, not all of whom would choose to take the train. While these are admittedly rough estimates, to me the numbers do not seem like a strong enough justification for moving the station site to Fuller Park from its current location close to central downtown.

Sincerely,

Nancy Shiffler

---

Vivienne Armentrout also questioned proponents' funding estimates. "Both John Hieftje and [city transportation coordinator] Eli Cooper are quoted to indicate that a Federal program exists that will provide 80% of the funding for a new station, with a local match of 20%," she emailed. But the only source Cooper cites, she says, is the federal Department of Transportation TIGER program--which over the last six years has received $124 billion in requests while giving out just $4.1 billion. Given those odds, "the likelihood that the City of Ann Arbor would receive a TIGER grant for a new train station seems vanishingly small."     (end of article)

[Originally published in October, 2015.]

 


On November 12, 2015, Jeff Hayner wrote:
The issue of where to place a new, large "transportation hub" station has become so polarized, along with much of Ann Arbor politics, that it is preventing us from thinking clearly on this issue. In cities around the world multiple modest stations can be found at key transit points. Instead of a giant mixed use station with massive parking decks obliterating the Fuller Road parkland, let's consider modest improvements to the current station with the use of some of the DTE property for much needed parking and transit access; and a second, smaller platform nearer to the hospital complex to serve the UMHS commuters that might use the service. This would certainly be a less expensive solution, and would eliminate the controversial attempts to use Public Lands for private purposes.

 
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