Minutes – November 15, 2008 – Detroit

Monthly Membership Meeting
Foran’s Irish Pub, Detroit, Michigan
November 15, 2008

Those Signing In: Hugh Gurney, Tim Backhurst, Jim Hinkins, Jim Wallington, Dave Randall, Clark Charnetski, Steve T. Sobel, George Schlaepfer, Kenneth Bay, Dick Pekarek, Robert Patterson, Bob Tischbein, Tim Tharp, J. R. Valderas, Chris Frey, Ren Farley, Dwight Phillips, John DeLora, Don Monteith

Also Present: Megan Owens, Executive Director, Transit Riders United

Vice Chair Don Monteith called the meeting to order at 10:10 a.m. Members present introduced themselves.

Guest Speakers:

Tim Tharp, Foran’s Irish Pub

Tim Tharp, owner of Foran’s Irish Pub and brand new MARP member, welcomed the group and gave a brief history of the building. It served as a ticket office for the Grand Trunk Railway between 1903 and 1938. The Grand Trunk’s administrative offices were in the adjacent building at 608 Woodward. In 1938, Grand Trunk lost interest in passenger rail service and the building became a bar in 1940. Tharp purchased the building from the Forans because he was interested in its history and architecture. He is slowly restoring it and hopes to rename the establishment the “Grand Trunk Pub” and feature Grand Trunk memorabilia as its décor. Valderas suggested the Tharp contact the Grand Trunk Railroad Historical Society for ideas.

Megan Owens, Executive Director, Transit Riders United (TRU)

Owens, explaining that TRU was like a Detroit area version of MARP, welcomed the group to Detroit. TRU has been working to improve all aspects of transit and is pushing for light rail, streetcars and commuter rail including WALLY as well as improved bus service. TRU is a volunteer based organization and she is the only full time salaried employee.

Transit in the region has been hampered because there has been no Regional Transportation Authority for the Detroit Metropolitan Area. TRU has been working to change that. Over the past 5-10 years, the attitude toward transit has been changing due to high gas prices, increasing congestion and TRU’s efforts. A Regional Transit Plan has now been developed with participation from the City of Detroit and the Counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb including a light rail system on Woodward Avenue, a commuter rail network extending from Detroit to Ann Arbor, Monroe, Pontiac and Port Huron, and express bus lines operating on dedicated rights of way throughout the region.

This plan needs the unanimous approval of the chief executives of all four jurisdictions involved. If that approval is secured, it becomes the official plan with at least the initial stages up and running in three years. As the initial efforts prove successful, the way will be open for additional transit service in incremental steps.

The plan is not specific as to which group will construct the Woodward Avenue light rail, but Owens feels the private group will do it. To do all eight miles of Woodward Avenue will cost around $300 million. New Start money would cover 50%-60%, but finding the remaining money would be difficult. The segment from the New Center to Downtown would cost $100 million, and the private group already has commitments for $75 million. The Michigan House of Representatives has passed a bill permitting public operating funds for privately constructed streetcars. Owens thinks the private plan is sound and could be a prototype for other municipalities around the country.

Owens feels that the Mayor of the City of Detroit, the Wayne County Executive and the Macomb County Board of Commissioners Chair are very supportive of the Regional Plan. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson has moved from openly hostile to luke warm. His vote will be crucial to implementing the Regional Plan.

In response to a question from Wallington, Owens felt that the expected stimulus plan would be very helpful, particularly with the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail line. Obama is very supportive of transit and would approve of more federal investment in upgrading our rail network. SEMCOG has recently selected the location for the airport transfer station on this line. It is on publicly owned land in Westland, adjacent to a public library at Henry Ruff Road. Norfolk Southern has agreed to permit four commuter trains each way on its segment of the line and to the West Detroit connection. CN is agreeable to two trains each way daily. Owens would like to see eight commuter trains operating each way daily. The published commuter schedule may include the three westbound Amtrak trains currently operating on this route.

DeLora explained that both NS and CN are reluctant to agree to many commuter trains because they expect their freight business to increase dramatically once the economy recovers. Public money may required to add extra tracks.

In response to a question from Randall, Owens stated that a regional sales tax supporting transit would require a constitutional amendment, then a vote in the localities involved.

Owens then moved to a discussion of the Michigan Transit Vision. This effort started with highway oriented people looking for additional funding for highways, but evolved into a general transportation plan including light rail, intercity rail connecting major cities and high speed rail, Detroit to Chicago. The group is calling for a doubling of transportation funding from $400 million annually to $770 million. Potential funding sources include an increase in the present gasoline tax, a tax on the value of gas sold, and a 1% sales tax for transportation.

Gurney moved that MARP officially endorse the Michigan Transit Vision. The motion was seconded by Sobel and approved by the members present.

Owens urged those present to consider a membership in TRU.

In response to a question from Gurney concerning TRU’s stand on the Michigan Flyer controversy, Owens responded that the Airport Authority has acknowledged that transit has been a problem. Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano has been very supportive of the Regional Transit Plan and the commuter rail project. He plans to appoint more transit friendly people to the Airport Authority.

Ken Ray expressed concern that CN plans to rip up the second track between Pontiac and Detroit which will affect both Amtrak and future commuter rail service. CN operates only four trains a day on that segment. Charnetski also expressed concern and asked that the State of Michigan change its policy concerning state ownership of rail lines. NS would love to sell the Kalamazoo-Ypsilanti line to the state.

In response to a query from Langdon, Owens felt that a Legislative Date for Let’s Get Moving would take place in April.

Minutes: Langdon moved that the minutes of the October 18 minutes be approved as amended. The motion was seconded by Wallington and approved by the members present.

Treasurer’s Report: Randall reported that as of October 31, 2008, the balance in the checking account was $5,001.85. The value of the Pratt Fund was $10,579.02, down considerably from its value of $16,192.30 as of October 31, 2007. On a positive note, our number of shares in the fund has increased. In reviewing Budget Performance, Randall pointed out that dues have brought in more revenue than projected. As a result, our Operating Ratio is 75.71%.

Langdon moved that we accept the Treasurer’s Report and make a $100 donation to TRU. The motion was seconded by Farley and approved by the members present.

Regional Chair Reports:

East/Central: Pekarek reported that Kaz Fujita has been attending meeting of the Blue Water Connection committee, representing both MARP and, unofficially, the Capital Area. For 2009, the Port Huron Convention and Visitors Bureau will administer the $50,000 grant from MDOT which will pay for billboards, brochures and other promotional efforts. Pekarek felt that a simpler billboard would be more effective. Langdon agreed that a simple “Take the Train” message would be better. At a recent meeting between Amtrak and MDOT, Amtrak agreed to pay for supplies to paint the East Lansing station. Gurney noted that the CATA Millage had passed during the November election.

Northern: Monteith reported that the Petoskey mayor who wanted to acquire some of Lake Central’s trackage for a street railway was defeated in the November election.

West: Langdon reported that he, Valderas, and Congressman Fred Upton were present at the New Buffalo station groundbreaking. The platform will be eight inches above the top of the rail. In an effort to retain the Pere Marquette Amtrak stop, the New Buffalo mayor has talked with both Al Johnson and Therese Cody at MDOT. He sees New Buffalo as the gateway to Michigan and a second Pere Marquette would be the first train from Chicago in the morning. Upton remains neutral on the Pere Marquette stop. This may be more of an Amtrak than a MDOT issue.

Pekarek suggested that more trains stop at New Buffalo, particularly Wolverine #350 eastbound from Chicago each morning.

Amtrak Thruway Service has been extended to Saginaw and Bay City. Brenda Cheney at Indian Trails has been very supportive.

Amtrak may be asking for an increase in state support to $7.5 million in 2009. This does not include the second Pere Marquette. In 2009, Westrain will be updating the mitrain website with an emphasis on bringing more people in from Chicago.

Langdon noted that Amtrak America had several pieces on Michigan and the Midwest in its latest edition. Speed on the Kalamazoo-Niles line may increase to 110 m.p.h. in 2009.

Metro: Hinkins reported that John Hertel, CEO for the Detroit Regional Mass Transit Authority, had responded to his requests to include a commuter rail spur to Cobo Hall and a line to Port Huron via the Dequindre Cut. Hertel will include a study of a route to Cobo Hall in the plan, but not the Dequindre Cut route. Hinkins feels that if the Ann Arbor-Detroit line is successful, interest in the Dequindre Cut route will resurface. Charnetski urged that steps be taken to preserve the Dequindre Cut right of way.

The Mayor of Detroit, the Wayne and Oakland County Executives and the Chair of the Macomb County Commissioners meet on December 8 to vote on the Regional Mass Transit Authority. Gurney suggested sending an e-mail to all MARP members in the Detroit area urging them to contact these officials and ask their support for the Authority.

Hinkins asked Patterson to call planners of the Birmingham-Troy Transportation Center for a status report.

Charnetski reported that the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has agreed to serve as the authority for WALLY. Terri Blackmore at the Washtenaw County Transportation Planning Office will continue to be involved, but AATA will be the operating authority.

AATA may assume responsibility for all public transportation in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area and perhaps all of Washtenaw County.

Charnetski was surprised and pleased to see new flashing lights and gates at the Dhu Varren Road crossing on the proposed WALLY line in Ann Arbor.

Coordinator Reports:

Membership: Valderas expressed concern that MARP was not attracting many members under age forty. Owens suggested that we think about why people would want to join. She speculated that they would be people who enjoy train travel and want more trains. Then come up with strategies to interest such people.

Wallington agreed that we need to look at venues where we would contact prospective members. Langdon responded that we had been successful at Senior Centers. Charnetski mentioned the Ann Arbor Green Fair. Randall suggested directing more attention to college campuses to attract young people who are potential riders and future big earners. We could promote the 15% discount for students.

At Langdon’s suggestion, it was agreed to defer further discussion to January, when the Membership Coordinator would be present.

Communications: No Report

Newsletter: Valderas reported that the Fall issue of The Michigan Passenger should be out in about a week. A discussion followed on the costs of distribution and ways to possible cut costs. The issue was referred to a committee consisting of Langdon, Valderas and Randall to come up with recommendations at the January meeting.

Future Meetings: After reviewing a suggested schedule for meetings throughout 2009, Wallington agreed to take on the responsibilities of Meeting Coordinator. Wallington will come up with meeting venues with the understanding that the Regional Chair for the region in which the meeting will take place has responsibility for the program.

Public/Governmental Affairs: Langdon is in the process of gathering information about newly elected legislators at the federal and state level. He quickly reviewed a number of bills under consideration in the Michigan legislature dealing with such things as permitting street railway companies to build on public right of ways, selling of a portion of state owned railroad track in Petoskey, and 2009 appropriations. On the Federal level, he mentioned a bill providing funds to rehabilitate out of service railway coaches.

A press release on the previous Monday announced the report of the Michigan Transportation Funding Task Force. In addition to highways and bridges, public transit and intercity bus and rail are included with recommendations for funding “As Is”, “Good” and “Best”. The task force is recommending a doubling of funding to bring most modes up to the “Good” level.

Langdon is working state wide on obtaining resolutions from municipal governments supporting a second daily Pere Marquette.

A new proposal is before the Surface Transportation Board authorizing Norfolk Southern to lease its line from Elkhart, Indiana to Grand Rapids to Watco. Addressing issues objected to in an earlier STB ruling, the line will be leased to Watco with few strings attached. The Watco operated line will be called the Grand Elk Railroad.

Other Business:

National Association of Railroad Passengers: Dwight Phillips reported on the NARP reorganization. Ross Capon’s title will be Chief Executive Officer, not President. The Council of Delegates and the Officers will be the decision making body. The registration fee for NARP meetings is around $120. The spring meeting is always in Washington, D. C., and the Fall meeting moves about the United States. In October, 2010, the fall meeting will be in Grand Rapids. Phillips is hoping to organize an outing in conjunction with that meeting to Holland, down the Lake Michigan shoreline, and then back to Lansing and Grand Rapids. Patterson suggested a special Detroit to Grand Rapids train in conjunction with the NARP meeting.

In response to a question from Charnetski, Phillips explained that the NARP Regions have been eliminated, but that doesn’t preclude larger than single state meetings. An annual meeting of states within the Chicago hub would be acceptable.

NARP feels that the election of Obama will be very beneficial for passenger rail.

Complimentary Memberships: Deferred until the January meeting.

Thruway Buses: Langdon pointed out that the Thruway Bus Connections with Eastbound Wolverine # 355 are at Kalamazoo, not Battle Creek.

Monteith offered to take over the vacant position of Thruway Bus Chair.

Adjournment: The meeting adjourned at 1:00 p.m.

Respectfully Submitted:

Hugh D. Gurney, Secretary


John DeLora, Chair