18-month study planned for Howell-to-Ann Arbor commuter rail

From The Ann Arbor News:

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority has announced the start of a new technical study to determine the feasibility of WALLY commuter rail between Howell and Ann Arbor.

WALLY is short for the “Washtenaw and Livingston Line,” a proposed 27-mile rail service that would use existing freight tracks to carry passengers from Howell into Ann Arbor for work in the morning, and back out to Howell at the end of the work day.

North-south commuter rail is a long-range project being considered as an alternative to ease traffic congestion along US-23.

The new technical study follows an earlier feasibility study that consulting firm RL Banks and Associates conducted in 2008.

The new study is expected to be a more in-depth process looking at model-based ridership estimates, more detailed cost estimates, station locations, train storage and maintenance facility locations, and governance and funding feasibility considerations.

The scope of work also includes a review of possible alternatives, such as express bus service and high-occupancy vehicle lanes on US-23.

The study, which AAATA officials indicated in early January would be starting this year, is being funded by a $650,000 federal grant.

While the grant requires a 20 percent match, funds were collected in advance by the AAATA in partnership with local contributors. AAATA officials said no funds from a new transit tax that voters approved in May are being used for the study.

The study will be led by Smith Group JJR and is expected to take 18 months to complete. It will be managed in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Transportation and will include a large public involvement effort, with plans for general public meetings and focused discussions with local elected officials, businesses, environmental groups, and other interest groups.

AAATA officials said new conditions now exist that were not available for the previous study six years ago, including recently upgraded track north of Ann Arbor, a fleet of 23 refurbished commuter railcars, support from the Friends of WALLY community group, and a change of railroad ownership in the city of Ann Arbor.

The Ann Arbor Railroad, now owned by Watco, has expressed a willingness to consider passenger service on their rail line through the city.

“We are very excited about this next step forward,” Michael Lamb, a Howell resident and Friends of Wally organizer, said in a statement.

“It is nice to see that local governments, both in Livingston and Washtenaw counties, have been working together to obtain the grant that helped make this possible. We look forward to the two counties taking the next steps to make north-south commuter rail a reality — a reality that is needed and wanted by the commuters using US-23.”

In addition to north-south commuter rail, the AAATA has been in talks with MDOT about launching AAATA express bus service along US-23 north of Ann Arbor.

The AAATA previously indicated it planned to meet with the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, city of Ann Arbor, MDOT and Livingston County to talk about possibilities for funding such a service.

MDOT has indicated it would be willing to purchase land for the AAATA to develop a 250-space park-and-ride lot for US-23 bus service, possibly near 8 Mile Road, which could fit in with a WALLY station for future commuter rail service.

Source: http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2014/10/aaata_announces_start_of_18-mo.html