Amtrak conductor Greg Papcun helps passengers board the train Friday morning at the Amtrak and bus station on Harrison in East Lansing. / Greg DeRuiter/Lansing State Journal
From The Lansing State Journal:
A new rail and bus station in East Lansing will take longer to build than planned because construction bids came in nearly $2 million over budget.
The $10.5 million project, which would replace the city’s 40-year-old train station near Harrison and Trowbridge roads, will be sent out for new bids after contractors said the work would cost more than the station’s $5 million construction budget, officials said.
Plans have been revised. Officials said they now hope the building will be “substantially complete” by mid-August 2015, said Lori Mullins, East Lansing’s community and economic development administrator.
Demolition of the existing station had been expected to start before the end of 2013, with construction of the new building to start this spring.
The new station will serve as the hub for Amtrak trains and bus service from Greyhound, Megabus and Indian Trails. It will add bus bays and parking spaces for taxis, rental cars and bicycles.
Capital Area Transportation Authority, which manages the station, said adjacent buildings that formerly housed recycling operations for Michigan State University are scheduled to be torn down in mid-July, with construction planned for mid-September.
MSU owns the site and leases it to CATA to manage the station, since the bus agency is the region’s transportation authority.
It will keep a CATA bus stop on Harrison Road, near the train station.
The project already was delayed because grant funds were slow to be released. It’s funded primarily from a federal grant, with matches from Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation. MSU is contributing the site as a long-term lease.
A portion of the grant already has been used for design and engineering work, leaving $5 million available for construction, said Debbie Alexander, CATA’s assistant executive director.
The low bidder, Grand Rapids’ Beckering Construction Inc., said it could do the work for nearly $6.9 million, CATA said.
Two local contractors — Delhi Township-based Laux Construction & Homes and Moore Trosper Construction Co., of Holt — bid $7.5million and $9 million, respectively.
CATA officials adjusted the project to keep costs down, Alexander said. Plans called for demolishing the existing station before building a new one and opening a temporary station for passengers, but CATA officials decided that would have been too costly.
Once the new building is done, Alexander said, the existing building will be demolished and work on the remainder of the site will be completed.
“We want to do the project right,” she said. “It’s a long-lasting facility, and it’s very important to do it correctly. If that means regrouping and making adjustments, that’s what must be done and what we have done.”
New bids are due May 21.
From the Sault Star:
Picture from Sault Online
Algoma Central Railway (ACR) passenger rail trains will continue to chug along between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst — for the time being — due to the extension of a $2.2-million federal subsidy to CN.
But that money dries up next March 31 and, as Transport Minister Lisa Raitt told stakeholders and media in Sault Ste. Marie Monday, the ball is now in others’ court to ensure the service survives.
“What we were asked for was a one-year extension, which made a lot of sense, so people can figure out how to move forward on it,” Raitt told reporters following the official announcement outside council chambers at the Civic Centre.
“But now the focus should be on working with CN and finding other people.”
The federal subsidy breaks down to about $448 per passenger trip, Raitt said.
“That’s a big subsidy that currently goes into it. We have a year-end date of March 31, 2015. I have no other money other than that. I can only gauge for one year at a time.”
Canadian National announced in January it would end passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst effective March 30, following the federal government’s decision to cut a $2.2-million subsidy for its operation.
Since 1977, Ottawa has provided CN with financial support to ensure the continued operation of the ACR passenger rail service between the Sault and Hearst under the Regional and Remote Passenger Rail Services Class Contribution Program. In 2013, it became the Remote Passenger Rail Program, with a focus on remote rail services that provide access to established, year-round communities with few or no other transportation options.
“If you look at Hawk Junction, if you look at Hearst, if you look at Sault Ste. Marie, there’s other modes of transportation to get in and out of these communities,” Raitt said.
“That’s true because the passenger levels have really dropped since 2007. It was brought to our attention it was too quick a transition, so we’re going to give another year for transition out.”
The ACR Passenger Service Working Group, chaired by Sault Ste. Marie CAO Joe Fratesi, lobbied the Conservative government to extend funding for one year to give more time to find a solution to keep trains rolling.
Raitt said stakeholders have done an “amazing” job presenting their case to the federal government.
“They’ll work throughout the year, I’m sure,” she added. “But I think our message here is clear. We did discontinue this subsidy, we’re bringing it in for a year to let people get it together in terms of moving forward and I think that’s the best sense. People should focus on finding solutions outside government subsidies, is my best advice.”
The minister said both Sault Ste. Marie MP Bryan Hayes and Carol Hughes, MP for Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, emphasized how many small businesses along the line depend on the service and needed time to “figure out how they’re going to move their goods or their services or their people that currently use the ACR.”
“It makes ample sense that we gave people a year and, certainly, the stakeholders did an amazing job of bringing the attention of the effects of the cancellation to our attention,” Raitt said.
“So, I think it’s fair they have a year to work together to try to bring together a private-sector solution.”
Regional stakeholders vowed Monday they’re ready to roll up their sleeves.
“This is now our time to work together to make sure that the needs of this region are very clear to CN, that we don’t come just with hat in hand with problems,” said Sault Mayor Debbie Amaroso.
She pointed to co-operation between Hayes, a Conservative, and Hughes, an NDP member, as well as “commendable” contributions from Fratesi.
“We come with solutions.”
Fratesi said his group had hoped Raitt would grant an interview in Ottawa before the end of April.
“All of us are just delighted that you accommodated us by coming to the Sault before the end of the month and not waiting until the 11th and a half hour,” he said.
Wawa Mayor Linda Nowicki said stakeholders might do well to take a cue or two from Madison Avenue.
“I’m very pleased with the announcement,” she told The Sault Star in an interview following the announcement. “It bodes well for us, but, as we’ve been told, we need to get together over the next year and come up with solutions and promote this service. It’s the only way it’s going to survive. It’s the same old comment … use it or lose it.”
She tags “inconvenient” schedule shifts a number of years ago for the slide in ridership.
“So there are many things that need to be looked at, and promotions (are) one of them,” she added.
The ACR Passenger Service Working Group, made up of municipalities, First Nations, small businesses, outdoor enthusiasts, tourism lodge operators and property owners who use the railway as a means of transportation, enlisted BDO Canada to draft a “socio-economic impact assessment” outlining how the line generates “significant” economic activity, sustaining hundreds of jobs and yielding millions in tax revenue.
That report is worth its weight in gold to Al Errington, lodge owner and Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains co-chair.
“We have a starting point and we can really talk about what we’ve had in the past as far as economic, employment and tax-generation impacts,” Errington told The Sault Star.
“But, also, it gave us a really good insight into what the potentials are.”
Errington’s Wilderness Island, located on Mile 206 on the ACR, is about a 7.5-hour train ride north of the Sault and is “very dependent” on ACR passenger train service.
“This is what we needed,” said Errington, slated to meet with Hayes Tuesday.
“We needed time to start to work on a better future for the passenger train, to optimize the operations, to expand the passenger train’s economic and employment impact on the region.”
He echoed Nowicki’s argument that schedule changes prompted a passenger decrease, down some 40%, he said, following 2007 amendments.
Errington also argues Ontario, which has a “responsibility” for short lines as it charges train lines property and transportation tax, has not been a prime player in the issue.
“The provincial government really has to become engaged in this whole process,” he added.
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero delivered his 2013 State of the City address in the newly restored Grand Trunk Western depot adjacent to BWL’s new REO Town power plant. / Courtesy photo
From The Lansing State Journal:
Beginning in late 2007, J. Peter Lark dedicated almost six years of his life to developing a 21st-century answer to the Board of Water & Light’s need for a power plant that produced affordable electricity and steam while significantly reducing the emissions associated with burning coal.
Almost 10 months into the commercial operation of BWL’s gas-fired REO Town cogeneration plant, BWL’s general manager seems to have succeeded on most counts.
During one of the area’s worst winters in memory, there were days when the coal-fired Eckert Power Station sat idle across Washington Avenue from Lark’s new
“We believe we have the cleanest, most efficient electricity-and-steam-producing unit in the country,” Lark said. “You’d think when I was walking around town people would say, ‘Wow, that’s really neat that you saved us burning 350,000 tons of coal,’ but I don’t hear that.”
Customer discontent about BWL’s ice-storm-outage performance during December 2013 aside, Lark said he has been on the receiving end of positive community reaction — but not for the reason he expected. Most often, people thank Lark for restoring the 112-year-old Grand Trunk Western Rail Station that shares a small fraction of the power plant’s 5.3-acre home.
“Public reaction has centered to a greater extent on the depot than the combined-cycle cogeneration plant,” he said. “That was a little bit surprising to me.”
Lark says longtime residents share “heartfelt memories” of a time when the depot served as a point of departure and return for vacations, military service and education. Some recite its importance to the industrial complex Ransom E. Olds built across the tracks.
But, it hasn’t been used as a train depot since 1971. Almost 38 years have passed since President Gerald R. Ford dropped by during a whistle stop campaign tour in 1976.
By then, the depot was four years into its second life as a restaurant.
Regardless of their age or memories, area residents have welcomed the rescue and restoration of a historically important and architecturally interesting structure. The depot was listed on the State Register of Historic Sites in 1977 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Nevertheless, the building fell into disrepair after the last of a series of restaurants closed its doors more than a decade ago. The rest of the 5.3 acres was vacant in 2009 when BWL began looking for a site for a new power plant.
“I don’t want to give you the idea we purchased this property so that we could restore the depot,” Lark said. “The overarching reason we selected this particular property was its proximity to both the (existing) steam line and the electric transmission lines. Against that backdrop, this seemed to be the very best property because if we located (the new plant) even one mile away, it would have cost us many millions of dollars more. …
“The fact that a National Historic Register property was on site was not a deterrent and was a welcome addition in that it would give us the ability to invest in restoration that would enhance the Lansing community, particularly the REO Town community.”
In abandonment, the depot was encircled by a chain-link fence that was easily breached. Some windows were covered with plywood but the panes in almost all of the unprotected windows were shattered, opening the building to people, critters and weather. The east side of the depot was a dumping ground for plastic, metal, wood and clothing.
Lark said he nevertheless loved the depot’s exterior at first sight.
“But then we went into the interior,” he said. “I guess the fairest way to say it is there was a lot of detritus. It really was a building in poor repair. I enjoyed the idea that we were going to have such a handsome building as part of our REO Town development, but it wasn’t pretty on that first day. There was a lot there that made the eye wish it was averting its glance. But you could see the bones were good.”
The BWL spent more than $2.8 million restoring the depot to serve as the home for board meetings and employee training. From its terra cotta roof to the dark wood ceiling, period light fixtures, windows, walls and wainscoting, the restoration is stunning.
“Everybody who’s come has registered a ‘wow factor’ about the depot,” said Lark, ticking off a list of dignitaries that has included Mayor Virg Bernero, U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers and Gov. Rick Snyder. “They’ve all been very impressed.”
Although the depot immediately accommodated board members and political bigwigs, BWL moved slowly in acknowledging public interest and requests for access to the depot.
Almost a year after Bernero used the then-virtually-restored depot as the backdrop for his 2013 State of the City address and six months after the adjacent power plant became operational, the BWL website referred to how the depot would be used once the plant went online.
The depot’s history is summarized on a bronze plaque on an exterior wall, but there is little inside that illustrates the activity that began in 1902. The building was open to the public for four hours on Oct. 9, but BWL doesn’t offer tours.
“We are kind of busy here,” Lark said.
He said he expects BWL to make more historical information available to satisfy visitor curiosity “over the next couple of years.”
Meantime, board meetings are open to the public and BWL recently created an online request form for groups interested in holding an event at the depot.
“It’s still a little bit of a work in progress as to how we’re going to finally deal with expressions of interest and requests for access,” Lark said. “It is a working facility. People can’t assume that it’s always available.
“Proprietary operations such as a for-profit corporation wanting to use it for a holiday party, that’s not what we’re thinking of. We’re not thinking of weddings or for-profit businesses using it at no cost to them. We’re thinking of the REO Town neighborhood, the city of Lansing, community-based efforts to improve the commonwealth.”
Terra cotta serendipity more than a century in the making
Terra cotta serendipity more than a century in the making
The eye-catching terra cotta roof atop the former Grand Trunk Western Rail Station is a product of a serendipitous moment within the $182 million REO Town power plant project the Board of Water & Light completed midway through 2013.
Built in 1902, the depot was in disrepair when BWL acquired the building and the 5.3 acres upon which it sat in January 2011. BWL’s decision to restore the depot to its original state represented $2.8 million of the project’s cost.
“Our original goal was to preserve and re-use as many of the existing tiles as possible and only purchase enough to replace the damaged and missing tiles,” said Pete Kramer, the mechanical engineer BWL hired to manage the parallel construction and restoration projects. “Unfortunately, the tiles that were left were not able to be salvaged in sufficient quantity and needed to be replaced.”
The tiles were 110 years old, but the manufacturer’s name was still legible — Ludowici Roof Tile Co. of New Lexington, Ohio.
“We didn’t think 110 years later that shop would still be in business, but it seemed worth a call,” said J. Peter Lark, general manager of BWL. “Not only were they in business, they were the kinds of people who save all the plans for all of the business they ever did.
“They had the original plans for the depot from 110 years ago. And they shipped us a complete new set of (14,600) terra cotta tiles right off the old plans.”
Their installation in 2012 created what Lark considers “the coolest part of the depot.”
The new roof cost $520,000, of which $298,000 was for the new tiles. They came with a 75-year warranty. Kramer said their life could exceed 100 years because modern installation techniques included use of better-draining material under the tiles.
Amtrak’s Wolverine Train #355 passes the new Dearborn station still under construction on March 30, 2014. (Photo by Kenneth Borg)
From the Dearborn Press and Guide:
The Dearborn city council approved at its meeting Tuesday the addition of about $185,000 to its contract with Neumann Smith, which is providing architect and engineer services for the city’s new Intermodal Passenger Rail Station, bringing the total to about $2.7 million.
“The project was originally scheduled for completion in August 2013,” Council President Susan Dabaja said at the meeting. “Due to circumstances beyond the control of the design team or the City of Dearborn, the construction has been delayed for one year.”
The addtion, requested by the Economic and Community Development Department, accommodates for the costs of extended construction administration services as a result of the delay.
The construction timeline for this project was delayed for a year in part because of the sale of the railroad right-of-way to Amtrak. That denied access to the corridor for almost a year, and access was further delayed when Amtrak took control as an agent of MDOT. MDOT’s design concept for a movable platform was eventually finalized this spring.
The city council also agreed at the meeting to extend the lease with Amtrak for the building and parking lot at the rear of the police and court buildings at the same rate of $31,000 per year.
“Amtrak has leased those facilities since 1978,” Dabja said.
The previously approved lease extensions expired April 1 and the extension will commence from that date. The city agreed to Amtrak’s request to extend the lease on a month-to-month basis not to extend one year, pending the construction of the new train station and prorated to reflect the number of months necessary for Amtrak to move into the new train station facility.
“Hopefully, it will be complete in the next few months,” she said.
The Federal Railroad Administration awarded funds to the City of Dearborn, via MDOT, for the design and construction of the new Dearborn Intermodal Passenger Rail Facility.
From News Channel 3 in Kalamazoo:
Amtrak will continue replacing some of its tracks in Kalamazoo Wednesday, which will impact drivers.
These are the areas you may want to avoid for the next couple weeks:
Wednesday, Harrison Street is closed until the 20th. By Friday the 18th Porter Street should be open, but on Saturday Wallbridge Street will be closed until the 22nd.
Detours will be posted, but they will change as different roads are closed.
Everything should be back to normal by Tuesday of next week.
From Crain’s Detroit Business:
Photo by Larry Sobczak
The Troy City Council voted 7-0 April 7, 2014, to authorize an offer of $1.05 million to Grand/Sakwa Properties LLC, to reacquire the 2.7-acre Troy Transit Center property after the courts found it had reverted to private ownership.
The vote authorizes the city to make that offer, based on funding from the Federal Transit Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation has a grant amendment request before the FTA for funds that would aid in the purchase.
Troy originally made an offer to Grand/Sakwa for $550,000 in November, which sparked a condemnation lawsuit in December when Grand/Sakwa didn’t respond. Oakland County Circuit Judge Leo Bowman dismissed the case on Feb. 21 because the appraisal was based on land valuations in 2010, when the site was still undeveloped.
The new offer reflects more current land values. If Grand/Sakwa takes it, Troy reclaims land that the Michigan Court of Appeals found had reverted to Grand/Sakwa in June 2010, and presumably the center that was completed last fall can finally open.
If the developer refuses, within a few weeks, the city could take Grand/Sakwa back to court.
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From The Grand Rapids Press:
The Pere Marquette arrives in Holland. M-Live file photo.
For 30 years, West Michigan residents have been able to travel between Grand Rapids and Chicago through Amtrak’s Pere Marquette rail service.
Now there’s a statewide effort underway to look into whether a train running between Holland and Detroit is feasible, and the idea is generating support from a local metropolitan planning body.
The Macatawa Area Coordinating Council’s Policy Committee this week endorsed the proposal from the Michigan Environmental Council and the Michigan Association of Rail Passengers to have a feasibility study done to see whether a passenger rail corridor could be developed using existing rail lines between the two cities.
John Langdon, a spokesman for the initiative, says if successful, it would probably be at least 10 years before train service could begin.
“This is an opportunity to get started,” Langdon said. “It’s a long-term issue. The feasibility study will only tell us whether it makes sense to move ahead to the next level.”
The so-called “Coast to Coast” line would go through Grand Rapids, Lansing and metro Detroit, and could connect major colleges as well as health care organizations such as those along Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile. The line would travel at a speed of 79 mph, compared to the current maximum speed of 65 mph on the Pere Marquette, Langdon said.
Most of the route would run on tracks currently owned by CSX Transportation, Langdon said.
MACC Executive Director Steve Bulthuis says adding a second passenger rail line would be a positive for the Holland area. But he says there’s a lot that has to happen before it’s known whether such a service would be viable.
“If you don’t justify the need for it, you never make it to the next steps in the process,” Bulthuis said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. This is a first step in a long process.”
The Grand Valley Metropolitan Council has not seen the proposal yet, but it’s likely to come before the planning body in the near future, said Mike Zonyk, the agency’s transportation planner.
From the Holland Sentinel:
Want to take the train into Detroit for a day trip or get some work done on your morning commute to Lansing?
Michigan isn’t there yet, but it’s taking the first steps toward passenger rail from Holland to Detroit and points in between with a proposed feasibility study for the project.
“This is really an opportunity to get started. This is a long-term issue,” said John Langdon, governmental and public affairs coordinator with the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.
Following the first successful study, more would follow. The project could take 10 or 20 years, Langdon said.
MARP and the Michigan Environmental Council are behind the study and asked the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council for a letter of support and a donation toward the study’s cost. At its Monday meeting, the MACC approved a $500 and sending a letter of support.
The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority is the study’s primary sponsor and the agency applying for a Michigan Department of Transportation grant to complete this first stage.
The maximum speed on the Pere Marquette from Holland is 65 mph. This is proposed to travel at 79 mph.
It’s hard to say how long it would take to get to Detroit from Holland, since the route isn’t fully laid out. However, from Holland to Grand Rapids would take about half an hour to 45 minutes, the same as driving — but without the driving.
The planned route largely follows the I-96 corridor.
Michigan’s three largest population centers — Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing — would be connected by passenger rail for the first time since 1970. It would connect 19 college campuses, the Grand Rapids Lansing and Detroit airports and a handful of major medical centers in the state.
The planned route would include Detroit, Williamston, East Lansing, Lansing, Grand Ledge, Kentwood, Grand Rapids, Hudsonville Grandville and Holland. Depending on the route selected, stops could also include Livonia, Plymouth, Dearborn, Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Hamburg, Whitemore Lake, Genoa, South Lyon and Howell.
From the Detroit Free Press:
Here’s an artist’s rendition of the proposed streetcar line on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
(From M-! Rail.)
The odds that Detroiters will be riding a Woodward Avenue streetcar line by late 2016 rose Tuesday thanks to a $10-million loan from the state to the planned M-1 Rail line.
The Michigan Strategic Fund, meeting in Detroit, voted Tuesday to approve the $10-million loan to M-1. As part of M-1’s complex, multilayered financing plan, the state money will serve as a sort of bridge loan to help free up some of the money from longer-term pledges.
The MSF supported the state loan in part because of the long-term economic development expected to result from construction of the M-1 line. Jenilyn Norman, the chief financial officer of M-1, told the MSF board Tuesday that the multiplier effect from M-1’s investment could produce more than $2 billion in new development in the Woodward corridor.
“You build density, folks want to live there,” Norman told the MSF board. “It will build new jobs.”
The M-1 project itself will create 41 jobs when the line opens in 2016, the strategic fund staff said.
The term of the loan is 10 years at 2% interest, secured by a reimbursement agreement with Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority.
Michael Finney, president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and chairman of the Michigan Strategic Fund, said the M-1 loan plus $6 million in funding for demolition of Joe Louis Arena also approved by the MSF Tuesday underscores the state’s commitment to Detroit.
“We are very supportive of Detroit, very excited about all the positive things that have been happening in the city for quite some time now,” he said after the meeting at Next Energy in Detroit. “And these commitments are just a further indication of the level of support that we have for the city of Detroit and its resurgence.”
M-1 Rail will create a curbside streetcar line running along Woodward from Jefferson Avenue to Grand Boulevard in the New Center area. Construction is slated to begin this spring and the line would be finished in later 2016 if the groundbreaking occurs on time.
Backers of M-1 rail predict that the three-mile line along Woodward will prove so popular that additional lines known as bus rapid transit will be added to grow into a metropolitan-wide system. Asked by reporters whether M-1 might suffer the same fate as the Detroit People Mover, a system that remained an isolated loop after being built in the 1980s, Finney remained positive.
“I don’t think anything is guaranteed,” he said, then added, “What you see, though, is a very big commitment from the community. The resources that are being committed are phenomenal, and we think it’s important to be a part of that.”s
From the Detroit Free Press:
■ M-1 Rail will offer streetcar services along Woodward Avenue from Jefferson downtown to Grand Boulevard in New Center, running about 3 miles with at least 11 stations.
■ Groundbreaking is in the spring. The first passengers could be riding in fall 2016. The cars will run curbside with the flow of traffic on newly laid track.
■ Financed in part by private businesses including Little Caesars, Quicken Loans, Compuware and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the line is touted as essential glue binding together developments taking shape in downtown, Midtown and New Center.
■ A looming question is whether the rail line eventually will expand north and also east and west to serve more people in the region from all walks of life and income levels.
■ The region’s new Regional Transportation Authority, which will work on creating a broader regional transit system, began to organize itself last year with state authorization. But the RTA has yet to hire a CEO or staff, and it lacks a source of funding.
■ The RTA board decided last month to postpone until 2016 a ballot proposal asking for a new tax or fee that could pay for a regional system’s infrastructure and operations.
■ The delay could mean that the greater downtown M-1 line will be up and running before a vote on RTA funding. Transit advocates say that could work in their favor because if the first stretch proves popular, demand might quickly rise to expand it.
M-1 Rail — who’s paying
The M-1 Rail line is funded by a combination of private and public money — making it unique among big-city transit lines. There are more than 20 sources. Here are the main ones and the amount each is giving:
■ $35 million: Kresge Foundation
■ $25 million: U.S. federal transportation grant
■ $9 million: Detroit Downtown Development Authority
■ $6 million: Ilitch Holdings
■ $4 million: Ford Foundation
■ $3 million donors: Blue Cross Blue Shield, Chevrolet division of General Motors, Chrysler Foundation, Compuware, Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System, Penske Corp., Quicken Loans, Wayne State University
■ $1 million: Hudson-Webber Foundation
A basic walk-up fare is expected be $1.50. There will be drivers on board the streetcars, which are expected to be able to travel the line from end to end in about 15 to 18 minutes. M-1 Rail
From the Detroit Free Press:
The long-awaited M-1 Rail project has a new route map, a promised spring groundbreaking and soon, maybe, a new name.
Naming rights will be sold as part of the marketing plan for the $140-million M-1 Rail line — so look for it to be called anything from the Little Caesars Express to the Quicken Loans Choo-Choo.
Naming rights for the urban rail line — like in Cleveland and other cities — could bring $1 million or more to help pay for the line, slated to run 3 miles along Woodward from Jefferson Avenue downtown to Grand Boulevard in New Center. The first passengers could be boarding by fall 2016, said Paul Childs, chief operating officer of M-1.
The broader question remains whether M-1 will run as a limited, stand-alone operation — much as the People Mover has looped around downtown since the 1980s — or lead to the build-out of a regional system that could run north to 8 Mile Road or even Pontiac and include rapid transit buses.
“I think it’s absolutely just the first portion of a regional transit network. I think this really gives us the foundational link people are going to build on,” said Matt Cullen, CEO of M-1 Rail. “We really think it’s the right project at the right time for Detroit. The hard work and the pain will be worth it.”
The broader vision still needs funding. A plan from the new Regional Transit Authority to ask voters for a fee or tax to pay for it was delayed last month until 2016, which could give the public time to experience the M-1 line in action. Depending on what sort of larger system is designed, stretching the line farther north — and east and west — could cost from hundreds of millions of dollars to more than $1 billion.
“I hope that we can move beyond this first phase,” said Harriet Saperstein, chairperson of the nonprofit civic group Woodward Avenue Action Association. “The downtown portion is important, but it’s only one part of the public transportation system we need all along Woodward Avenue.”
So far, the M-1 Rail project has raised about $132 million from a patchwork of corporations, foundations, nonprofit agencies and government sources. It needs another $10 million or so, with potential sources already identified for about $6 million of the gap, said Laura Trudeau, a managing director with Kresge Foundation who works closely with the M-1 effort.
For workers and residents of greater downtown, M-1 promises connections among different sites and at least a partial solution to the parking shortage in the increasingly crowded areas. The streetcars will run curbside with the flow of traffic.
Graig Donnelly, director of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program based in the TechTown building near Wayne State University, is looking forward to riding the line. He said he drives his car to downtown meetings now but will switch to the streetcar when it opens.
“Given where my office is located and how close we’ll be to that amenity, I’ll just hop on the M-1 Rail,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s a quality-of-life thing.”
Donnelly sees another benefit: greater networking possibilities from running into acquaintances on the new transit line. “I think that those are unplanned things that add richness,” he said.
Supporters hope that richness of experience and other selling points, such as economic development gains for neighborhoods along Woodward, will add up to a compelling case for voters to approve future public funding for a regional system.
The idea over the years has been to use the M-1 Rail as a demonstration project that would win support for a wider network. There are some signs among regional officials that building out a broader system could gain support if it operates as a less-expensive rapid transit bus line, rather than adding more and costly light rail.
Not everyone is a fan of big new public transit systems in metro Detroit. Republican legislators in Lansing have balked at providing any funding, and some neighborhood activists worry that real estate along the M-1 route will grow so pricey that lower-income residents will be forced to move.
But proponents argue that new, higher-priced transit-oriented development is exactly what tax-strapped Detroit needs and a key reason for building M-1 in the first place.
A different path
The M-1 project’s financing and organization are unlike most, or perhaps any other, big city transit systems. M-1 will operate as a private nonprofit, with its operations and maintenance outsourced to a private vendor yet to be chosen. This is in contrast to other systems that are generally administered by city departments of transportation.
Financing, too, is nontraditional, with major backing coming from a mosaic of private business leaders, the Kresge Foundation and other foundations, the city’s Downtown Development Authority and the federal government, along with multiple other sources.
“It’s not an ideal way to build public infrastructure, but it seems to be our best shot at getting transit in the near future,” said Megan Owens, executive director of the nonprofit civic group Transportation Riders United.
The hybrid structure and financing model is a legacy of the tortuous trail M-1 backers have navigated from the beginning.
The project dates to 2008, when John Hertel, a former state legislator and general manager of the suburban SMART bus system, was asked by regional leaders to explore the possibility of a new regional transit system.
Hertel knew metro Detroit had suffered multiple failures during the past 40 years to create such a system due to regional animosities and city-suburban conflicts. So to jump-start a regional system, he recruited the Ilitch family, Compuware founder Peter Karmanos, Super Bowl XL Host Committee Chairman Roger Penske, WSU and other deep-pocketed individuals and institutions to pledge support for a 3.2-mile streetcar line along Woodward Avenue.
■ Related: Roger Penske touts M-1 Rail project as Detroit’s ‘home-run project’
In 2010, the M-1 project was merged into ambitious larger plans to create a faster transit system from Detroit to the city’s border with Oakland County. But those plans fell apart in 2011, and it appeared for a time that the idea of a streetcar on Woodward was dead.
Now led by Cullen, a former General Motors executive who heads up businessman Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, the private and nonprofit investors in M-1 resurrected the original concept of the streetcar line along Woodward for greater downtown. That’s the concept now close to groundbreaking with some initial utility relocation work already begun downtown.
Childs, the project’s COO, said the money already raised will be enough to build and operate M-1 for 10 years. Besides construction funding, money is available for operations through several sources: fares, the naming rights and an operational fund that will benefit from private and public support.
In Cleveland, the city’s bus rapid transit line along Euclid Avenue was named the HealthLine after it received sponsorships from the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital on the eastern end of the line. In Detroit, Owens of the transit riders group said that sort of name is preferable to a more blatantly commercial sponsorship.
That will be decided sooner rather than later. But whether this long-delayed system, with its unique structure and financing, becomes the first component of a broader regional transit network is a question that will take longer to answer.
MARP Member Meeting
Saturday, April 5, 2014,
10 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Wayne County Community College
(Downtown Campus, Room 236)
1001 W Fort, Detroit MI 48226
Map & Directions
The April 5 general membership meeting will take place at the downtown Detroit campus of Wayne County Community College (WCCCD), 1001 W Fort St, Room 236. Look for the modern building, attractively landscaped, on the south side of Fort Street immediately west of the Lodge Freeway. There is ample off-street parking in 2 lots at the west end of the building.
Dr. Frank Dunbar and his WCCCD colleague Howard Smith, will tell us about new programs at WCCCD that will lead toAssociate of Applied Science degrees in Light Rail Transportation designed to prepare students for employment in the light rail industry developing in Detroit and other urban areas nationwide. Students may focus on Electromechanical work or on Signaling and Communications. A Railroad Rules and Safety Certificate (starting Fall 2014) will support employment in the general railroad industry (freight, intermodal, etc.).
Dunbar and Smith cite the coming of the M-1 rail line along the Woodward corridor as a driver of jobs in the coming years. They will explain the WCCCD program, why they developed it and what are the hopes and needs for the future.
Dr. Frank Dunbar is Provost, Regional Program Planning, at WCCCD. His varied background includes work as a Landscape Architect, College Professor at three universities, and Minister. Model railroads are his hobby.
Howard Smith, WCCCD Instructor, worked his way through Youngstown State University on the Erie Lackawanna RR and continued to work in both operational and executive level positions in the rail industry from 1971 until his retirement for the General Motors Rail Operations Center in 2006. He is on the Board of Directors of the Adrian and Blissfield Railroads and is the principal at alderley LLC, his rail logistics consulting entity.
Plan to enjoy our usual no-host lunch following the meeting. See below for other ideas on enhancing your visit to Detroit.
If you would like to share a ride to the meeting, please reply to this email. We will do our best to put you in touch with someone driving from your area.
We look forward to seeing you in Detroit!
Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers
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Spend Your Weekend in Detroit
You might think of making a weekend of your visit to Detroit. If you have not been there lately, you may be pleasantly surprised with the variety of places to go and things to see. For several years, I have been telling people that THE place to be on a Friday evening is the Detroit Institue of Arts. Start your evening with a snack or a full dinner at the DIA Café on the lower level. Then wander up to the Rivera Court for live music performance at 7:00 and 8:30 pm. You’ll hear wonderful musicians as you gaze around at the famous Diego Rivera murals celebrating Detroit industry. To cap your evening, the adjoining Detroit Film Theatre will be showing IN BLOOM on Friday, April 04, and Saturday, April 05, at 9:30 PM. The Inn on Ferry Street is just around the corner when you’re ready to call it a day.
Ten Things to Do in Detroit
Samurai: Beyond the Sword is the current special exhibition at the DIA
Dine Drink Detroit by FREEP writer Sylvia Rector highlights smaller spots
Detroit Redwings On April 4, the Rewings play the Sabres at home.
Detroit Pistons are away this weekend
From The Detroit News:
Photo by Larry Sobczak
Months after construction was completed on Troy’s new multimodal transit center, passengers hoping to catch a train at the $6.3 million facility are still out in the cold.
On a frigid morning last week, Troy dentist Keith Kelley stood at the outdoor train platform on the Birmingham side of the tracks, waiting to catch a ride to a conference in Chicago. He could look across and see the Troy transit center, but couldn’t go inside.
“I’d love to have it open right now. In fact, I was looking forward to having it open in November,” he said. “It’s unfortunate.”
The transit center was born in controversy and continues to be a headache for Troy years after the City Council approved federal funds to build it.
The center, which was completed last fall behind a shopping center near Maple and Coolidge Highway, remains closed to commuters because, according to a judge’s ruling, the city does not own the land upon which it was built.
In the meantime, commuters who rely on the Amtrak train must use a freestanding shelter on the other side of the train tracks in Birmingham, which provides little protection from the elements.
Riders on SMART bus lines 465 and 475 also have to wait in freestanding shelters along Maple Road, according to the suburban bus service.
“It’s a shame people have to stand outside in the cold when there is a perfectly good building across the tracks,” said Troy Mayor Dane Slater.
The city is committed to gaining control of the land, which the judge ruled belongs to developer Grand/Sakwa Properties, the owner of the Midtown Squareshopping center surrounding the transit center.
Although he never supported building the transit center, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Henderson says the city must get the land somehow, whether that is through an agreement with Grand/Sakwa or through condemning the property.
“I didn’t vote for it, but I’m 100 percent behind it now,” said Henderson. “From a community standpoint, we have to try to do whatever it takes to make it work, because otherwise we will have wasted a lot of money.”
Last month, Oakland County Circuit Judge Leo Bowman dismissed the city’s lawsuit against Grand/Sakwa, affirming the developer’s ownership of the land. It’s the latest setback for the city, which has been trying for more than 13 years to open a transit center on the site.
Troy partnered with Birmingham on the transit project in 2000, when Grand/Sakwa donated the land with the condition that the money for the transit center be secured by 2010. Birmingham later backed out.
The city secured an $8.4 million federal grant, but the developer says the money was not acquired before the deadline, meaning the land reverted back to the developer.
In the lawsuit, the city offered to pay Grand/Sakwa $550,000 for the 2.7-acre site. That amount comes from a 2010 appraisal of the land that was completed before the transit center was built.
In a response filed in court, Grand/Sakwa says its concerns go beyond how much the land is worth.
The developer says Troy has not provided the “resources necessary to properly operate and maintain” the transit center.
“Troy’s (projection) for the transportation center shows 167 buses accessing each day the transportation center by crossing Grand/Sakwa’s parking lot,” the document says. “Troy has not provided any analysis or plan of action as to how this traffic situation would ever function and how it would mitigate the substantial impact and interference with the commercial tenants’ businesses at the shopping center or on the access and use of the shopping center by their customers.”
The next step for Troy, said City Attorney Lori Grigg-Bluhm, will be to conduct a new appraisal of the land. The city voted in November to set aside $1.8 million toward purchasing the land if necessary.
“Every federal grant is done on a reimbursement basis. We pay and they reimburse,” Grigg-Bluhm said in an email. “However, we would have assurances that if we spend the money, there will be a reimbursement.”
If the developer agrees to a deal, the litigation will be settled. If not, the city would file a lawsuit to condemn the land.
“There is no plan to demolish the transit center,” said Grigg-Bluhm. “If necessary, a condemnation case would settle the issue of legal title of the real property.”
The 28,000-square-foot transit center was completed last fall and was meant to replace the Amtrak station just across the tracks in Birmingham.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the rail line can’t sign a lease with Troy until the city owns the property.
“We look forward to a resolution and moving into the Troy transportation center,” he said.
According to the company, the Birmingham stop served 23,257 Amtrak riders in 2013 and 19,712 riders in 2012along the Wolverine line, which runs between Pontiac and Chicago.
The transit center almost wasn’t built. At first, the city council rejected it but later approved a scaled-down version in January 2012.
Councilman Wade Fleming cast the deciding vote in favor after getting assurances that taxpayer money wouldn’t be needed to fund the $30,000 in annual maintenance for the center. Grigg-Bluhm said thus far maintenance and utility costs for the center have been a part of “project costs” and fall under the federal grant funds.
Fleming said he hopes the city can strike a deal with Grand/Sakwa to buy the property.
“We absolutely have to move forward,” said Fleming. “You don’t want to overpay. It’s unfortunate we have to pay anything for it because when we made the decision, the land was supposed to be ours.”
Slater, who fought for approval of the center when he was a councilman, said it is in everybody’s best interest to proceed with purchasing it, “as long as it doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything out of our general fund.”
He says it’s a matter of waiting on the new appraisal.
“Once that comes in,” he said, “I’m hopeful that we can resolve this issue and open the doors.”
From Railway Age:
For its Fiscal Year 2015, which begins Oct. 1, 2014, Amtrak is requesting $1.62 billion in federal capital and operating support, an increase of approximately 16% from FY 2014 federal appropriations. But more important, said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman, fundamental changes are needed in how the U.S. government financially supports intercity passenger rail.
A portion of Amtrak’s annual operating profit on the Northeast Corridor, estimated at $300 million and based upon a ratio of operating revenues to operating expenses (so-called “above the rail” costs), is used to cover some costs of its state-supported and long-distance trains. This has to change, said Boardman, if the NEC is to continue as “vital to the mobility, connectivity, and economy of the entire Northeast region. Continuation of current funding levels leave Northeast Corridor infrastructure vulnerable to a bigger, costlier and far more damaging failure than anything yet seen.”
“Infrastructure deterioration and changes in business patterns have reached a point where something has to change,” said Boardman. “If America wants a modern intercity passenger rail system, the problems of policy and funding must be addressed. The nation cannot afford to let a railroad (the NEC) that carries half of Amtrak’s trains and 80% of the nation’s rail commuters fall apart; the economic consequences would be devastating. A new federal policy and funding arrangement should create a significant and reliable multi-year capital investment program to reverse the decay of NEC infrastructure and support other intercity passenger rail projects. A strong federal commitment will allow Amtrak to plan and implement major multi-year projects such as replacing century-old NEC bridges and tunnels, and make critical capacity improvements such as the Gateway Program between New Jersey and New York.”
“To provide additional funding for NEC improvements, Congress should fully fund the operating and capital needs of the long-distance routes so that NEC revenues can be reinvested in the NEC,” Boardman said. “By dedicating NEC revenue to meet NEC needs, it could be leveraged to pay for debt service on loans to address the most urgent NEC infrastructure issues. It also could be used to finance other funding solutions such as public-private partnerships, grants of assistance, and state and commuter rail agreements.”
Boardman said Amtrak’s long-distance trains have been a core federal responsibility since 1971, and Congress should fulfill its obligation by funding their full cost. “Long-distance trains form the backbone of the Amtrak national system, connect small towns to major cities, support local economic development, deliver passengers to state-supported corridor trains, and conduct interstate trade and commerce,” he said. “They are vital to the communities and people they serve, and are increasingly important as airlines and bus companies abandon significant regions of America. It is clear that Americans wants a national system of intercity passenger rail, and will continue to use it in greater numbers if we can provide it. Our work over the past decade proves this, but to maintain and improve that system will require both an increase in the overall capital levels and a real federal commitment to deliver the needed financing.”
In Amtrak’s FY 2015 budget request to Congress, Boardman pointed to “the work Amtrak has done to maintain our aging rail system and sustain and even improve service in the face of unprecedented natural disasters and a challenging environment. Service disruptions caused by weather and other issues cost us more than 440,000 riders and $42 million in ticket revenue. In spite of that, we set an annual ridership record of 31.6 million passengers and a ticket revenue record of $2.1 billion. That we did this in spite of serious obstacles says a lot about the demand—but the losses we did see are just the first of the challenges we can expect to face if we do not act now to stop the decay of the Amtrak system. While I am very proud of the way the men and women of Amtrak have sustained that system, the time has come for us to do something to reverse this trend so passenger rail can continue to contribute to our national economy.”
“Amtrak has successfully sustained our national system for four decades, thanks to growing ticket revenue, strong freight railroad support, and the federal grants designed to ensure national connectivity,” Boardman said. “Congress stated in Section 228 of PRIIA that the operation of a national system was ‘a vital and necessary part of our national transportation system and economy,’ and that is a sentiment with which I strongly agree.”
Click on table to enlarge
Table 1 (opposite) shows Amtrak’s total FY 2015 request, as well as the divisions of operating and capital need. “Taken as a whole, our FY 2015 request is approximately 16% higher (excluding FRA oversight funding) than our FY 2014 appropriations,” Boardman noted. “We have taken a very careful approach so that we can keep operating costs down, and operating revenues up, resulting in a cost recovery that has continued to rise, reaching 89% in FY 2013, and a projected 91% by FY 2015.
“If Amtrak could obtain access to a multi-year federal funding commitment, it could build and follow through on a capital program that would address our fleet and infrastructure needs. Amtrak has never had a true capital commitment, one that allowed us to sign multiyear contracts, knowing that the money would be there to carry out the work. As a result, we have put off major capital programs to renew aging bridges and tunnels, in some cases for decades. The projects we have been able to undertake have been completed in a manner that is less efficient than it would have been if we could say with certainty that our projects were funded in advance. Our ability to buy in bulk for out years, which saves money, is hindered by our inability to commit money for purchases in coming fiscal years.
“The uncertainty associated with an annual appropriation sometimes means we are left with excess inventory that must be stored or held until a use can be found for it. It is difficult to get industry [suppliers] to respond to orders or proposals if we can’t guarantee large purchases, and it is hard to know when our workforce will be needed, a challenge that is made even harder by the limited work windows that are available on the Northeast Corridor. The process of ‘ramping up’ the organization so that we can effectively invest at a level that will make a difference will take a period of years, as we will have to develop capabilities that are currently scaled to our existing program—both management capabilities, such as project and contractor oversight, and workforce capacity—to accommodate significantly higher levels of funding.
“While we can expand and contract these capabilities to accommodate fluctuating levels of investment, there are significant long term cost savings that will come if we can plan our activities in advance and manage our workforce and inventory in a manner that ensures we obtain the most efficient return for our investment. This would be another efficiency benefit that will flow naturally from access to a committed source of capital support. Such a funding stream would also be important for our long distance services, which enjoy strong support from the states and communities they serve. In addition to the aging fleet, which we have begun to replace, there is a need for investments in the freight network to provide improvements that are needed for passenger service.”
To conduct its operations in FY 2015, Amtrak said the NEC will require no federal operating support, but it will require approximately $445 million in federal capital investment, in addition to other funding provided by commuter authorities in accordance with Section 212 of PRIIA. This investment will be augmented by approximately $290 million in revenue generated by NEC services.
“While this level of investment is far below the amount needed to stabilize and improve the NEC, as called for in the draft Five-Year Northeast Corridor Capital Plan now under development with the Northeast Corridor Commission, it reflects what we believe is a realistic request for funding giving our continued reliance on the annual appropriations process for capital funding,” said Boardman. “The majority of the investment will be spent on infrastructure renewal, which includes stations, rail and safety mandates, and rolling stock. The remaining $34 million will be invested in Amtrak’s most important ongoing investment project, the Gateway Program, designed to build additional track, tunnel and terminal capacity at Amtrak’s most congested point, New York Penn Station and the tunnels connecting it with New Jersey.”
Amtrak’s state-supported services have become a major source of ridership growth, with ridership almost doubling between 1998 and 2013. “Over the course of the past year, we have worked closely with our state partners to implement the cost-sharing mandates established by Section 209 of PRIIA,” Boardman said. “Section 209 requires the states to assume a larger and consistent share of the costs associated with each service, and their willingness to do so has allowed Amtrak to preserve every single state-supported service. While the 209 process has secured state support for the majority of operating expenses, Amtrak will still require approximately $83 million of federal operating support for these trains in FY 2015. While these services as a whole will continue to require some level of state and federal operating support, it should be noted that by the end of FY 2013, preliminary analysis indicates that nine of these routes had reached or exceeded the 90% cost recovery level for the year. In most of these instances, the availability of multiple frequencies, the promise of reliable service, and the additional choices conferred by intercity rail and transit service connectivity have driven this growth—which strongly suggests that the success of our NEC services could be replicated in other corridors, if sufficient levels of capital funding and freight railroad access could be obtained to develop them.”
While Amtrak’s long distance service costs have been offset in recent years by revenues from NEC services, Amtrak is proposing for FY 2015 that the federal government provide for the totality of their operating need, $618 million, as part of its FY 2015 operating need. “Like the Northeast Corridor, these trains will require significant capital investment, with a total identified FY 2015 need of $295 million,” said Boardman. “About $50 million of this cost will be required for ADA compliance at our stations. The purchase of new rolling stock, including the ongoing replacement of our Heritage cars, will require $130 million. Approximately $115 million will be required for overhauls to our fleet, much of which dates to the early 1980s.”
How all this is to be accomplished “is both a policy matter and a financial one,” Boardman said. “The states and our other partners have important roles to play, but investment on the scale required to achieve program goals will have to come from the federal government. It is equally clear that the existing investment model, with its unpredictable timing and funding levels, is incapable of providing financing in a manner that supports the development of major multiyear projects. If America wants a modern intercity passenger rail system, this problem must be addressed – as much to sustain the existing level of service as to develop the capacity Amtrak will need in the years to come. A new and sustainable financing framework is needed for the benefit of the entire nation, as well as the multiple state and regional economies which we do or could serve. Table 2 (lower illustration) will put our FY 2015 need in the context of our needs for the following years, which will, if financed, bring us up to a level that will allow us to make meaningful improvements in our system reliability. The need for investment is pressing, and the gradual process of decapitalization will, if left unchecked, lead to higher costs and worse service, for Amtrak, commuters, and Northeastern freight carriers.”
From an M-1 Light Rail press release:
Tim Fischer and Nicole Brown.
As utility relocation work continues and the Streetcar Project moves closer to the start of track construction, M-1 RAIL has increased its staff capacity with two new hires. M-1 RAIL President and CEO Matthew P. Cullen today announced the hiring of Timothy Fischer as Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and Nicole Brown as Community Relations Manager.
“We are pleased to welcome Tim and Nicole to the M-1 RAIL team,” said Cullen. “Each possess a special set of skills that will boost the organization’s expertise in public policy and community outreach while expanding the team’s bandwidth as we continue to advance this important Detroit transportation initiative.”
Both Brown and Fischer have already begun their duties with the organization, bringing the M-1 RAIL staff member total to eight not including Cullen in his voluntary roles as President and CEO. The eight team members work from the M-1 RAIL office located at 1426 Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.
As CAO, Fischer’s responsibilities are to interface and coordinate with the multiple transit agencies on policy issues; assist in strategy development for fundraising and financial activities; and support donor relations.
Fischer joins the M-1 RAIL team from the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), a statewide environmental and public health organization, where he served as Deputy Policy Director since 2007. A Michigan native, he served as the chair of the Transportation for Michigan Management Team where he led efforts to pass Michigan’s Complete Streets law, establish a Regional Transit Authority and secure public transportation funding. Fischer is also an advisor to the executive board of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers. In addition, he is a member of the State Bar of Michigan.
Brown, a native Detroiter, is responsible for managing the project’s resident, business and visitor engagement efforts. She brings to the M-1 RAIL team extensive experience as a community engagement and marketing communications professional with expertise in the areas of community and economic development.
Most recently, Brown was the Communications and Partnerships Manager for the educational non-profit organization, Excellent Schools Detroit (ESD). Prior to joining ESD, Brown served as the Communications and Outreach Coordinator for the Midtown Detroit, Inc. /Living Cities Integration Initiative Detroit program, Woodward Corridor Initiative. She began her career in community engagement with regional economic development non-profit, Woodward Avenue Action Association (WA3).
The M-1 RAIL Streetcar, once operational in 2016, will travel 3.3-miles (6.6 miles round-trip) along Woodward Avenue between Downtown and the North End – making stops at 19 stations (three center running and 16 curbside), connecting riders to destinations such as cultural institutions, hospitals, universities, employment centers, stadiums and entertainment venues.
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The Illinois Department of Transportation, on behalf of the states of Illinois, California, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington, on March 18, 2014 formally granted the Siemens Rail Systems Division
an official Notice to Proceed on 32 “Charger” diesel-electric passenger locomotives. The NTP follows IDOT’s December 2013 announcement of its intention to move forward on the order with Siemens.
The order is worth $225 million and includes a purchase option for another 225 locomotives—75 locomotives for use in regional transportation and another 150 locomotives for intercity transportation. The initial 32 locomotives, which will be manufactured at the Siemens plant in Sacramento, Calif., are scheduled to be delivered between the fall of 2016 and mid-2017. They will be used for regional and intercity passenger trains traveling at speeds of up to 125 mph.
The Charger locomotives, which are based technically on the Siemens Eurosprinter, Eurorunner, and Vectron locomotive platforms, feature a primary traction drive consisting of a 4,400-hp-rated Cummins QSK95 diesel engine with 16 cylinders and a cubic capacity of 95 liters. The QSK95, which complies with EPA Tier IV emissions regulations, will be manufactured in the U.S. by Cummins Inc., headquartered in Columbus, Ind. The 120-ton (approximate) Charger locomotive offers a starting tractive effort of 65,200 pounds (290 kN). Siemens says all components “are procured and manufactured exclusively in the U.S.”
“For Siemens, this order marks our entry into the U.S. diesel-electric locomotive market and strongly underscores our long-term vision for the U.S. passenger rail market,” said Siemens Rail Systems Division CEO Jochen Eickholt. “As one of the fastest, most efficient and safest modes of transportation, passenger rail is a key priority for U.S. infrastructure development. Siemens wants to play a major role in this lucrative market and can already look back on first successes, for example the new, advanced-technology ACS-64 electric locomotives built in Sacramento for Amtrak.”
|Michigan Flyer-AirRide passengers traveling between Ann Arbor’s Blake Transit Center (BTC) and either East Lansing or Detroit Metro Airport will board and be dropped-off in a new spot at the BTC. The new boarding location is 390 S. 5th Avenue (corner of 5th Ave. and William St.), across from the main entrance to the Ann Arbor Library. See “AirRide” on this diagram.
This change coincides with the opening of the new 12,019 square-foot BTC building, which boasts better rider amenities, including a larger customer service lobby and improved restrooms. It’s also now home to the getDowntown program—formerly located on E. Washington St.—with offices on the BTC’s second floor. The commuting resource offers programs and services to employees and employers in downtown Ann Arbor that include the go!pass, Commuter Challenge, bike locker rentals, Zipcars, free commuting assistance and more.
Located on the same lot as the former BTC building, the new BTC was needed to accommodate the more than 5,000 passengers now arriving and departing daily, especially riders who stop at BTC en route to downtown Ann Arbor destinations, or who transfer between buses there.
From the Detroit Metro Times:
Jim Storm has an easier time than most. In the region that gave America a set of wheels, the Ferndale resident hasn’t owned a car in years, leaving behind the perpetual repairs, insurance payments and gas pumps for the bus — and for him, at least, it works.
The thought of someone actually ditching his car in metro Detroit, however, is virtually unheard of. Living within a stone’s throw of Woodward Avenue, though, it makes sense for Storm. During the week, the 43-year-old leaves his home in the morning, walks toward the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation stop near the southwest corner of Marshall and Woodward avenues, waits for one of the numerous Woodward SMART buses — one typically arrives every 15 minutes — and rides to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where he’s worked for years as the museum’s mount designer and fabricator.
Storm knows his situation is unusual. He is the rare automobile-less alien in public transit-troubled car country.
Clutching a copy of The New York Times outside the DIA on the last day in February, Storm says of his bus route: “It works out great, I read the paper in the morning; I don’t have to worry about parking, paying insurance on a vehicle, a lot of stuff,” adding, “Thankfully, I live within walking distance to my stop.”
Of the 106,000 daily riders along DDOT’s three dozen routes, and 35,000 daily riders on SMART’S 43 routes, Storm is an anomaly — the metro Detroit transit rider who can enjoy leisurely reading the newspaper on his bus route to work. There are certainly others like him, but they’re so uncommon it’s a fool’s errand to find those who would echo Storm’s words.
Cities like New York City and Seattle have reliable public transportation, the kind of efficient, ubiquitous service that ferries commuters with few headaches besides a few grumbles about a packed bus or a temporarily closed station. But those are minor complaints, and ones many folks here would love to have in exchange for the status quo.
In metro Detroit, public transportation is a bunk concept; most riders, with no hesitation, will offer a similar refrain when asked their opinion: They hate it. It’s a sick joke; ride a bus long enough and you’d surely hear a horror story.
How’d it get this bad? Why is it that someone who wants to get from downtown Detroit via DDOT to a job at, for example, the Costco in Livonia, needs to budget two hours for the trip? When driving that route would take a mere 15 to 20 minutes? Consider the two transfers needed to make that bus ride happen, tack on the inevitable waiting period, and it begins to make sense why this region is beholden to the automobile not just by name, but in practice too.
In the case of Detroit proper, as the city’s fiscal picture deteriorated over the last four decades, its public transit has fallen in tandem. It’s an unfortunate reality for the residents of roughly 60,000 households in Detroit, of whom 80 percent are black, who have no access to an automobile.
Ask that question — why is public transportation here so unreliable? — and the finger-pointing begins: It’s the transit planners; there’s never enough funding; there’s not enough interest from the public; the divide between the suburbs and Detroit has made it near-impossible. Some bring up the General Motors streetcar conspiracy, even though it was a manager of the city’s old streetcar system who originally vowed to ditch rail for buses.
Is there a smoking gun? Most would say no, that it’s an amalgam of these issues.
The city’s streetcar system halted operations in April 1956. The web of privately owned bus systems across the region would dissolve soon after. The commuter rails that had connected Detroit, Ann Arbor and Pontiac were discontinued in the ’80s. Today, Detroit is basically left with two disconnected bus systems that generate more headaches than on-time transfers or speedy rides.
Believe it or not, metro Detroit’s public transportation was far more developed and useful in 1950 than it is today.
The city was once able to call itself the owner of the largest municipally owned street railway system. Were a rail system to be introduced today, the Southeast Michigan Regional Transportation Authority board would have to unanimously approve it, which is no small task. By contrast, only a supermajority is needed to seek voter approval for a new bus system or a rapid transit system. It’s as if Lansing scripted laws to mandate the region’s transit priorities.
In truth, Detroit could’ve easily had a more robust, efficient system in place today if decisions were made differently — even after the federal government invested heavily in the freeway system, allowing motorists to pack up and move to the suburbs. History does support some critics who blame the region’s absence of comprehensive public transportation on a lack of public interest. In some instances, it was a vocal minority choosing personal sentiments over the betterment of the region. But, some say, if the public wasn’t crying out for better public transit, it was because no one took the reins and showed them what a good system could look like.
Transit boosters have optimistically pointed to the new M-1 Rail streetcar line in Detroit as a sign of hope for the future in the region. The $140 million privately funded venture will shuttle residents and employees between New Center, Midtown and downtown. The progress heartens advocates of a more expansive system, but it remains unclear if the transit line will be tied to an economically flourishing section of Detroit, or if planners will allow for future expansion into a real rapid transit system that embraces the city limits and beyond.
All that said, the historical record shows that, had some elected officials bitten their tongues and made some tough decisions, it’s likely there’d be more Jim Storms riding public transit in our region today.
The average Joe in the 1910s and 1920s had choices to get around metro Detroit: Cabs, trains, an interurban, streetcars, horse-drawn vehicles, walking. Those looking to gain some freedom from the rail monopoly of the time turned to the automobile as a saving grace. It was also a major turning point for public transit within the region, beginning with the city’s shift to municipal ownership of the streetcar system in 1922.
As more residents moved outward from the city’s core, Detroit remained connected through its Department of Street Railways, with more than 500 miles of track and feeder buses.
Numerous proposals were floated to expand the system with new subway routes. In 1920, after a rapid transit plan for the region was completed, Mayor James Couzens vetoed a bond issue to construct a subway. Toward the end of the decade, as the DSR reached its apex, voters were considering another plan to construct a subway line from the city to Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge Complex. It was actually supported by automakers, as described in an article for Progressive Planning magazine by Joel Batterman, policy director for Detroit faith-based group MOSES. But the 1929 proposal failed due to reasons all too familiar for the region.
“[The subway] met fierce opposition from the homeowners’ organizations that also held the line against neighborhood racial integration,” Batterman writes. “The subway would serve the automakers and downtown businesses, they argued, at the expense of the expanding middle class, which inhabited the city’s vast tracts of new single-family homes and no longer relied on Detroit’s extensive but slow streetcar system.” Batterman cites a historian who said the proposal garnered the most support in the black ghetto, where workers needed transit to reach their jobs.
Then, the Great Depression came, striking a blow to streetcar ridership. In part to stave off rising maintenance costs, the DSR began running buses more frequently. But it wasn’t just money that served as the chief factor for Detroit’s shift toward buses. In the mid 1930s, DSR general manager Fred A. Nolan launched an effort to convert the city’s streetcar system entirely to buses by 1953.
Bus-happy Nolan reduced the system’s rail fleet from 1,600 cars in 1934 to 908 by 1943, according to Bernard Craig, a retired terminal supervisor for DDOT who maintains an exhaustive history of metro Detroit’s public transit involvement at DetroitTransitHistory.info. But Nolan’s plan didn’t last long. World War II revived the Detroit economy, rebranding the city as the Arsenal of Democracy, giving the streetcar system a boost.
“… restrictions imposed by the U.S. Office of Defense Transportation during World War II would require the use of streetcars in place of buses where possible to help conserve gasoline and rubber, resulting in the temporary restoration of full-time streetcar service on the city’s rail lines in 1942,” Craig writes.
Ridership spiked again to more than 490 million. But the increase deteriorated DSR’s rail infrastructure. The wheels were in motion to shutter the streetcar operations for good.
The city discontinued half of its 20 streetcar lines by 1949, dropping five more in 1951. At the same time, transit workers went on strike, which took another whack at ridership levels, according to a University of Detroit Mercy study. After the DSR purchased hundreds of buses to run along the streetcar routes, the rail system was made obsolete.
In April 1956, the last streetcar rolled down Woodward Avenue.
Just two months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would sign the Federal Aid Highway Act, authorizing the construction of more than 40,000 miles of interstate highway. Automobile costs had dropped, becoming more affordable for the average American family. It was the first warning sign that metro Detroit transit agencies had to adapt or die.
WHAT PUBLIC TRANSIT MEANS
Even Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan focused on the need for a reliable bus system in Detroit during his State of the City speech last month.
“A job [in Detroit] means a reliable bus system,” the mayor said, before highlighting the tribulations of one resident who travels to Redford for work. The 53-year-old man rides the DDOT 38 Plymouth route in the wrong direction on his way to work, Duggan said, just to ensure he has a seat on the bus. That’s what it’s like here.
Riding along a Woodward bus last month, a male rider shared his recent woes with nearby passengers: He was standing on Eight Mile Road in sub-zero temperatures when he flagged down a DDOT bus passing by. To his amazement, the driver simply said, “I’m not working right now.” And she drove off. The next bus didn’t come for some time.
Another rider quickly chimed in with gripes: “I had to wait an hour for one yesterday!”
The mayor, who announced his administration would bring new security cameras for DDOT buses this year and have 50 new vehicles in service this fall, then became a scapegoat for one female rider, who said: “Duggan says the buses gettin’ better, but they’re not; they’re gettin’ worse!”
10 MINUTE WAITS AN ‘INJUSTICE’
That’s not to say metro Detroit’s transit systems used to be in worse shape than the infrastructure of today. Craig, the DetroitTransitHistory.info proprietor, has fond memories of the early 1960s, the time when he discovered his love for buses. The various private operators had problems, Craig says, but the one- to two-hour waits some Detroiters face today were unimaginable. Quotes scattered throughout newspaper clippings from the 1960s he’s collected over the years show riders blubbering about 10- or 15-minute waits.
“Back then, if you waited 10 minutes for a Woodward bus — back 30, 40, 50 years ago — that would be an injustice,” Craig says. “We’ve come a long way, unfortunately, in a downward spiral getting there.” But as ridership levels wavered, the worsening financial conditions of numerous bus operators eventually led to fractured service. So officials and planners set about crafting a solution.
At the time, major metropolitan areas were moving toward regional transit operations, and some local officials were feverishly working to hatch such a plan for metro Detroit on the heels of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Urban Mass Transportation Act. But the initial show of support for a regionalized operation was minimal. Mergers were previously considered, but the 1960s served as a landmark in metro Detroit’s storied history of failed regional cooperation (See sidebar). From this point forward, Detroit’s status in the region as the central core of activity slowly disintegrated, as the lack of cooperation slowly dispersed capital and fractured transit operations outward to the suburbs.
By 1967, state legislators would offer a breath of fresh air with the passage of the Metropolitan Transportation Authorities Act, which formed the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA). The authority was tasked with merging the operations of the numerous transit systems across metro Detroit.
The problem? State lawmakers failed to grant SEMTA the ability to levy taxes for a dedicated revenue stream. This forced the authority to rely on private sources and state grants to get an efficient regional transit system off the ground.
Not far away in the Rust Belt, when the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority was formed a decade later, voters approved a 1 percent countywide sales tax to fund the authority, paying for nearly 70 percent of the operating budget.
The merger became the difficult part. The 1967 riots in Detroit cut loose tensions between an institutionally racist police department and residents, leaving wounds that still linger today. When Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor, took office in 1974, those tensions heated up again. But Young was seeking to make decisions that benefited Detroiters, in much the same way suburban leaders have worked for their residents ever since.
To say it was simply Young’s rhetoric that widened the city and suburban racial divide and halted regional transit discussions would be wrong. There were legitimate concerns from Detroit surrounding the governance of a regional authority, something neither side appears to have budged an inch on. In a 2012 Urban Affairs Review article by Jan Nelles, she summed up the simmering issues surrounding SEMTA, which represented a seven-county region (Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne).
“Detroit was reluctant to give up control to a regional body dominated by suburban interests, and disputed the distribution of representation from each jurisdiction on the governing board,” Nelles writes. “For its part, SEMTA was wary of taking over the DSR’s liabilities, which included a significantly underfunded [pension liability].”
In the early 1970s, then-Gov. William Milliken was at work to merge the two operations because President Gerald Ford had promised $600 million in federal funds (about $2 billion in today’s dollars) for public transit during his presidential campaign, Nelles writes. The Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) would administer the grant, but the agency required some form of a regional authority that included a true merger of the systems as a stipulation for releasing the funds. Things were looking bright as officials reached a compromise in 1976, culminating in the passage of revamped SEMTA legislation.
FORD TO DETROIT: WE’RE SORRY
Johnny Cash once mused to an interviewer that failure should not be dwelled on. Failure, he supposedly said, should be analyzed, so as to not make the same mistake twice.
It’s an adage worth mentioning, as the transit plan being pursued in the 1970s could’ve been a game-changer. And yet metro Detroit continued to fall into the same trap.
Scott Wagner, then an assistant manager for rail technology with SEMTA, recalls the plans with fervor. The main piece of the project, a Woodward Avenue subway line, would’ve run from the Renaissance Center to McNichols Road, where it would surface and follow the corridor’s median. Then, Wagner says, the service would continue northbound into Royal Oak, where it would shift toward Main Street or Washington Avenue (“We were still negotiating with Royal Oak”), and eventually link up with an existing commuter rail service between Pontiac and Detroit.
It didn’t end there. Rail lines were intended to run along Gratiot Avenue as far northeast as the I-94 freeway, according to a story from the Ann Arbor Sun. An additional commuter line between Port Huron and Detroit would’ve been constructed. A flush light rail system would’ve extended into the suburbs. And, yes, downtown’s People Mover was in the pipeline as a way to link these systems up where they converged.
It’s an important point to remember, because bitter locals, out-of-towners, writers parachuting into Detroit and others easily forget that the People Mover, which exists as a lonely and generally useless 2.9-mile fixed-route light rail system above downtown’s business district, was intended to be more.
Carmine Palombo, director of transportation planning at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), recalls the plans, as he started work at the planning agency around the same time. He echoes points about the issues that strained relationships between the suburbs and the city over public transit.
“A lot of that is tied to revenue, a lot of that is tied to having two separate and distinct systems that serve different populations,” Palombo says.
The reason there’s no subway running under Woodward Avenue today linking Oakland County and Detroit is a “difference of perceived needs between elected officials,” he says.
Merger discussions continued as late as 1979, culminating in the passage of a half-cent gas tax in the tri-country region for the new transit system, the University of Detroit Mercy report says.
Again, like clockwork, the plan would fall apart due to disagreements between the city and the suburbs. Mayor Young was opposed to SEMTA’s plan for a light-rail system along Woodward. He wanted the high-capacity heavy rail system as a condition of the merger, according to the UDM report. Young and county leaders began a public back-and-forth over the Woodward proposal.
The price tag for Young’s heavy rail technology brought the regional transit project to nearly $1.5 billion, Nelles writes, diminishing lawmakers’ interest.
Wagner says the price shouldn’t have been an issue, pointing to the significance of the $600 million federal commitment. “We could’ve gotten the [Woodward] subway for that kind of money,” he says. “That would’ve been one hell of a start.”
With a successful subway, Wagner says, momentum would’ve likely shifted in favor of mass transit.
What’s readily evident, he says, is metro Detroit had the bones to make mass transit work as late as the 1980s: Between the existing commuter rail and bus services, the $600 million regional proposal floated three decades before would’ve laid the groundwork for modern public transit in Detroit. A 1-percent sales tax to support the project was on the table, he says, potentially generating hundreds of millions of dollars to support capital costs. It never went anywhere.
By the mid-1980s, the lack of a shared vision made the regional transit plan near impossible to complete. SEMTA dissolved a 45-minute commuter train route it had been operating between Detroit and Pontiac for nearly a decade; a year later an Ann Arbor route was cut.
Wagner lived in Ann Arbor during this period and remembers taking the commuter rail line at $15 per month for a train pass, “which was a lot cheaper than driving downtown,” he says.
Amtrak offered to restart service with funds to support a commuter rail line between Joe Louis Arena and Ann Arbor, but local funds were never identified and the project was axed. Although officials ensured that construction of the People Mover would move forward, it would come without the much-needed feeder lines to make it viable, Wagner says.
“The People Mover was never supposed to be standalone project,” he says. “That was supposed to be the downtown distributor for three lines that never got built.”
The People Mover’s bay area at the Joe Louis parking garage was initially thought to be an ideal station for the commuter rail service. When the feeder lines never commenced, the People Mover was eventually extended into Joe Louis Arena, Wagner says.
“We were going to run 11 trains [daily] between Joe Louis and Ann Arbor.”
Then, the $600 million federal commitment, which had survived three presidencies, was revoked. Stifled by personal comments made by Young and a lack of any concrete regional authority in place, President Ronald Reagan yanked the pledge off the table.
The inability to capitalize on the $600 million federal pledge is “arguably the most damaging decision to the Detroit region in the last 50 years,” says Keith Schneider, former director of the Michigan Land Use Institute.
By the end of the decade, SEMTA was dissolved by the state legislature, citing the inability to merge operations in the region. Under the newly minted Regional Transit Coordinating Council, which would operate under SEMCOG as the pass-through agency for grants, the SMART bus system was created. The bus system’s footprint covered Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
“The thing just fell apart,” says Craig. “It got so bad that by the time you got to the late ’80s, the sentiment was that we need to scrap the whole thing.”
Nelles writes in Urban Affairs the reason that public transit has gone nowhere in Detroit falls to the relationship between the city and its suburbs.
“Almost all of the challenges to the creation of a single regional transit system in metropolitan Detroit can be traced to power asymmetries that manifested in disagreements between the city and its suburbs over money, power and routes,” she writes.
MAKING THE CITY ‘ACCESSIBLE’
Elisabeth Gerber, professor at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, says metro Detroit’s problem is that leaders have never “gone to the whole region and made the case for expanded regional transit.”
In other metropolitan areas with successful developments of mass transit, “you can find a prominent leader who kind of stepped up and made this their issue,” says Gerber, a Washtenaw County representative on the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA). “For whatever reason, you don’t see that in metro Detroit.”
Bill Bradley, columnist at Next City, an online magazine that covers urban issues, says a lot of people don’t realize how improved transit infrastructure can affect the economy and workforce.
“Economists and lawmakers like to talk about transit-oriented development,” Bradley says. “But I’m far more interested in making jobs more accessible to the people who need them most.”
Bradley, 28, has lived in New York City since 2007. A daily rider of the city’s robust public transit system, Bradley says it’s “undeniably the best, most reliable public transportation system in the country, even for low-income residents [in] the outer boroughs.”
And while he says improved public transit infrastructure in Detroit would likely benefit those who already rely on it the most, a vast operation with increased efficiencies would “make jobs in the suburbs or far-flung parts of the city that were previously out-of-reach more plausible.”
“Detroit is a car city, no doubt,” he adds. “But there are more low-income people in the city sans cars than [most] might think.”
But public transit comes at a cost. Whether it was taxpayers not willing to pump the necessary resources into such initiatives, or leaders failing to hash out a compromise, the fact is, the money to make it work has never materialized.
The capital for transit projects in metro Detroit continues to come from the state gas tax, Palombo points out, and that hasn’t increased since 1987.
“How can you build a transit system when you don’t fund it?” he says.
James Bruckbauer, policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute, says it’d likely take time to win over lawmakers and residents wary of public transit. And even if the money was there, constructing an effective transit system takes time.
Officials need to construct “a plan for transit that the public can get its arms around and understand and see the benefits of, before we start asking people to pay for it,” Bruckbauer says. “Look at Cleveland; they’ve had an established transit system since the 1970s; they’ve been able to show results to their transportation, but it still took them [several] years just to build seven miles of [bus rapid transit].”
FAILED MERGERS AND THE FUTURE
In the 1990s, DDOT and SMART managed to reach one agreement that remains relevant: a regional bus pass. Besides that, the region continued its tradition of failed mergers — lots of talk and studies and promises that fizzle before dying on the planning table.
Discussions were moving forward to consolidate DDOT with SMART as recently as 1994.
Then, according to Crain’s Detroit Business, the two main issues that derailed discussions during the Young administration reappeared: funding and control. The proposal gave Detroit the upper hand in governance of a regional system.
Then-Mayor Dennis Archer stuck to the same argument Young touted, Crain’s reports. Archer felt the proposal “makes sense because the Detroit Department of Transportation’s system has many more buses and riders than SMART.”
Archer told Crain’s at the time: “It would not be unreasonable for the city of Detroit to want to protect its interests.” Archer, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, and other leaders never reached a compromise.
By most accounts, the most recent — and relevant — blunder came from former Gov. John Engler’s veto of the proposed Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority legislation in 2002. Engler axed the bill on his way out the door in 2002 to spite those holding up an eleventh-hour bill that would authorize the construction of 15 charter schools in Detroit.
According to The Michigan Daily, Engler said of his veto: “… if the region couldn’t get its act together on education, it didn’t make sense to help transit.”
So after nearly four decades — four decades of lagging behind other metropolitan areas — metro Detroit was nowhere closer to crafting a regional solution to transit.
That is, until 2012. After 23 previously failed attempts, an effort by the state legislature to establish an effective regional transit authority got the governor’s signature.
Signed into law by Gov. Snyder, the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA) was created to represent Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. Under the legislation, the 10-member board representing the RTA would be tasked to oversee current transit operators across the four counties and develop a proposed 110-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) system.
The legislation didn’t come without controversy. The RTA’s bylaws show a clear distinction, and, some say, preference to bus options over rail (see sidebar). The authority’s board would need a supermajority to ask voters to approve a tax that would fund future operations and capital costs for the BRT system. To construct or operate a rail line, the board requires a unanimous vote.
And in the face of high expectations, the RTA underperformed in its first year. Its first pick as chief executive officer, John Hertel, stepped down from the job after just four months. When the RTA legislation was approved in 2012, it earmarked $500,000 for startup costs. That wasn’t enough. Hertel cited the lack of funds as a chief reason for quitting. Without additional support, he was unable to hire an administrative staff needed to prepare for a ballot campaign.
And when funding isn’t in place, the temptation to economize hurts more than bureaucracies. There are growing concerns that transit planners working without necessary resources might cut corners while designing a Bus Rapid Transit system, resulting in a phenomenon known as “BRT creep.”
The seminal piece on BRT creep comes from transit planner Dan Malouff. Writing for BeyondDC in 2011, Malouff says the ability to cut back on true BRT elements are endless: Buses running in shared expressway lanes, rather than true dedicated lanes; dedicated stations become “stops;” prepay fare and no priority is given to the buses at stop lights.
“There are a thousand corners like that you can cut that individually may or may not hurt too much, but collectively add up to the difference between BRT and a regular bus,” he writes.
Significantly, the RTA also recently voted to hold off on pursuing a ballot campaign until the 2016 general election. State law says the authority can only go to voters during general elections.
Bruckbauer, of the Michigan Land Use Institute, says patience is key. But as the recent RTA board meeting showed, transit advocates are fed up with waiting. Before the RTA voted to delay the ballot campaign, numerous members of the public urged the board to move forward with a proposal this fall, during Michigan’s gubernatorial election.
The concern was if the 2016 proposal failed, as numerous first-tries have, the RTA could continue operating as an organization essentially living hand-to-mouth, while sending hopes and prayers that the state legislature will chip in some additional help. It might be four years before the authority even receives a dime from a steady revenue source.
Lawmakers recently stripped $2 million for the RTA from a supplemental spending bill already approved by the Senate. Officials say it would support the next CEO hire, but at this point the money hangs in limbo. (A conference committee was scheduled Monday between the House and Senate to reach a compromise on the spending bill and possibly re-insert the RTA earmark. No decision had been made before Metro Times went to print.)
That decision, in particular, comes with a hint of irony: SEMTA, the 1970s regional authority, had troubles because lawmakers didn’t enable it to levy taxes. The current RTA can levy taxes, but it lacks the funding to get its feet off the ground.
Nevertheless, the Snyder administration says it fully supports the $2 million appropriation officials still hope to pass. Exactly why the need for more than $500,000 wasn’t recognized in the first place, though, isn’t clear.
Megan Owens, executive director of the Detroit-based nonprofit Transportation Riders United, tells Metro Times she doesn’t “think anyone realized just how much it was going to take to get this agency up and running.”
After the millions of dollars spent on transit studies over the last four decades, how officials and lawmakers showcased a lack of understanding of what’s required to get the agency off the ground is unfathomable.
It also remains to be seen if the RTA might meet the same fate as SMART. Over the last decade, numerous communities have chosen to opt out of the suburban bus system.
State Rep. Kurt Heise, a Republican from Plymouth, turned heads last year when he introduced a bill that would allow communities to opt-out of the RTA, a stipulation specifically left out of the original legislation.
Heise says the communities he represents all opted out of SMART years ago: “I did not feel it was appropriate for me to bind my communities to a new regional transit authority when they have already affirmatively withdrawn from the existing [service].”
Although Heise concedes Gov. Snyder would likely veto his RTA opt-out bill, the representative says “it’s a potential bargaining chip in any potential Detroit bailout or financial assistance the state might provide.” Heise was referencing the $350 million pledge by Snyder to shore up Detroit’s pensions in its ongoing Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition.
“I do believe that the bill is a bargaining chip,” he says, “if the region is going to put money on the table to help Detroit.”
FOREVER LAGGING BEHIND
Back outside the DIA, Storm prepares to head to the museum to start work for the day. Even he runs into the unpleasant side of metro Detroit transit with his golden egg Woodward route. A couple of years back, SMART cut service into Detroit to only run during peak hours. If Storm misses the bus during those times, he has to transfer to the Detroit Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) Woodward route at the State Fairgrounds.
With DDOT, that usually means waiting. “Sometimes that can take a half hour or more,” he says. But the straight shot SMART route “works out well … it’s fantastic.”
He references the M-1 Rail streetcar, a project Nelles describes in Urban Affairs as something that’s “beginning to look like a People Mover II.” Initially, project backers wanted a light-rail line that cut northbound beyond city limits. That was scaled back to end at Eight Mile Road in 2010.
“For the second time, an ambitious regional transit plan was reduced to a single keystone project located exclusively within Detroit city limits,” Nells writes.
Two years later, M-1 Rail was scaled back even further to its current mode, length and form. Transit advocates still have optimistically praised the streetcar line as an anchor project for a long-term initiative. Plans call for the $140 million, 3.2-mile streetcar to run through downtown Detroit with 11 stops before arriving at Grand Boulevard. Officials recently announced a groundbreaking ceremony set to take place this spring, with the projected first streetcar operating by fall 2016. The hope is, if M-1 Rail is successfully operating before the RTA asks voters to approve a tax to fund operations, metro Detroit residents may grow keen to a regional transit plan.
But if the project’s private backers choose to limit the transit line to its current form, forgoing the possibility of future expansion, the streetcar’s function will be limited. It would increase connectivity between residents and employees of a flourishing area in Detroit. But, in a limited state, it’s hard to imagine residents in Northville or Chesterfield Township seeing the benefits of such a line.
Storm says the issues that plague metro Detroit transit operations cross his mind often. Residents like him who have a straight shot, zero-transfer bus ride could probably get by fine without an automobile. But, for the majority of riders, the operation is a sad state of affairs.
He says he’s supportive of the plan to implement the supposedly more efficient bus rapid transit system. But Storm points to the lack of resources in the current systems and offers a question about the BRT proposal that’s sure to cross the minds of many in the coming years.
“If you can’t manage a bus system [now],” he asks, “How are you going to manage that?”
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