Final draft of Ann Arbor train station study awaits state, federal review

From The Ann Arbor News:

Amtrak's Wolverine train at the Ann Arbor station.
Amtrak’s Wolverine train at the Ann Arbor station.

Ann Arbor officials said back in May the Ann Arbor Station study was nearing the final stretch and a recommendation was expected in the next month or so on a preferred location for a new Amtrak station in the city.

More than three months later, nothing has been announced, but city officials say there should be news sometime in September.

Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, said a final draft analysis of alternative locations for a new train station was to be delivered to the Michigan Department of Transportation on Wednesday afternoon.

He said the draft report includes a comprehensive review of options for a new train station both on Fuller Road and Depot Street, as well as a no-build option.

“The report also discusses a recommendation to preferred location,” Cooper said in an email on Wednesday, declining to disclose the preferred location.

“Recognizing this is a draft document and subject to agency review, comments and amendments, it is best to wait until the final version is available,” he said.

The Ann Arbor News has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the draft report and is awaiting a response from the city.

City officials have been talking about building a new Amtrak station for several years, and the current study has been ongoing since early 2014.

It’s the city’s position that the existing station on Depot Street is inadequate and will become increasingly inadequate in the years ahead in terms of passenger demand, quality and comfort, access, intermodal connectivity, and integration within the city.

Assuming MDOT’s review indicates the draft report is responsive to previous input from MDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration, Cooper said it will be forwarded to the FRA for final review, and a final report could be released in September.

“I’m thinking we’re into early- to mid-September if all goes well,” Cooper said, noting public meetings to discuss the recommendations will be scheduled after that.

Cooper said late last month the city was leaning toward holding off on the public engagement until after Labor Day to avoid summer vacation issues and to maximize the opportunity for public engagement and comment.

When asked for an update in early July, Cooper said the city’s project team was working through the FRA’s comments on an earlier draft report.

The city has given serious consideration to demolishing the existing Amtrak station on Depot Street and building a new station at that location, as well as another option that would involve building on the footprint of a city-owned parking lot along Fuller Road in Fuller Park in front of the University of Michigan Hospital.

As for the idea of returning the historic Michigan Central Railroad Depot on Depot Street to use as a train station, something the federal government asked the city to explore as part of the Depot Street alternative, the city’s project consultant laid out a list of reasons in May why that wouldn’t be a very good option.

If the city decided to stick with the existing Amtrak location on Depot Street, the city’s project team has concluded the city would need a portion of the DTE-owned MichCon site north of the station to build a new station and parking facilities there. DTE has agreed to collaborate with the city to make that work if that option is chosen.

The project team has evaluated options for Depot Street that include a new station either at ground level or elevated.

The project team is working with assumptions that ridership along the Detroit-to-Chicago corridor will increase significantly in the coming decades, with daily roundtrips by Amtrak increasing from three to 10, along with new commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit that’s expected to start within a few years.

City voters will have the final say before a new station can be built.

The city hired URS Corp. for $824,875 to lead the train station study. A little less than $165,000 came from funds the city previously budgeted, with the rest covered by a federal rail grant the city accepted in 2012.

The $2.8 million federal rail planning grant also is expected to cover some additional future expenses as the project moves forward.

Final design of a new Amtrak station is identified as a $2.6 million expense in 2016-17 in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan. The actual construction of the new station is shown as a separate $44.5 million line item in 2017-18.

City officials expect 80 percent of the funding to come from the federal government with other local partners potentially contributing funds.