Last summer, the final piece was put in place for a four-way partnership to fund a transportation feasibility study of the corridor from Plymouth Road down to South State Street. The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board gave approval for its $320,000 share of the study’s $640,00 price tag.
Some early results of the “Ann Arbor Connector Feasibility Study” were presented last Tuesday evening at the Ann Arbor District Library in an open-house style format with boards and easels, complemented by a presentation from the consultant hired to perform the study, project manager Rick Nau of URS Corporation.
Nau reported that the study is currently in the needs analysis phase – traffic congestion was a phrase Nau sprinkled through his remarks during the evening. The initial needs analysis shows that the majority of the travel demand in the Plymouth-State corridors is accounted for by trips between different parts of the University of Michigan campus.
The study has not reached the point of drawing lines on maps for possible transportation routes. Instead, the representation of the area of study is a “boomerang map” stretching from US-23 near Plymouth Road to Briarwood Mall. The boomerang includes two of four “signature transit corridors” identified in the city of Ann Arbor’s Transportation Plan Update – Plymouth/Fuller roads and State Street.
Prompted by an audience question, Nau made clear that the study has not yet reached the dollars-and-cents analysis phase that will eventually come. The study is expected to be completed by December 2010 with the preliminary recommendations to be publicly presented in the fall.
Nau’s presentation focused on establishing the need for higher quality transit along the corridor and the range of technology choices available to meet that need. Those technology choices range from larger buses running along the regular roadway to elevated monorail trains.
Transit Technology Choices
The choices Nau laid out to the audience broke down into five categories, all of which are comparable to current systems in American cities, most of which are larger than Ann Arbor.
Streetcars: Modern, electrically-powered vehicles that operate on single-car trains and carry 100-120 passengers each, a streetcar system would not offer a great travel-time advantage given that its track operates in mixed flow with cars and makes frequent stops. They are, however, a popular method with patrons, offering a smooth and quiet ride.
Nau cited officials in Portland, Ore. who estimated their city’s streetcar system has generated $6 billion in adjacent growth and development. It wouldn’t be Ann Arbor’s first ever streetcar line – two railroad stations in town and the downtown area were connected by streetcars in the early 1900s.
Light Rail: This is an electrically-powered model that is larger than a streetcar but more expensive. Light rail operates with three-car trains and carries more people. Light rail typically offers an exclusive or semi-exclusive right-of-way, meaning no cars drive over the tracks, which leads to quicker travel. Although usually found in larger cities like Dallas and Denver, Nau said he thinks Ann Arbor could support it since the travel demand is more comparable to that of a bigger city.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): Cheaper than other options, a BRT system can run with contemporary, “articulated” buses, rubber tires and a duel-fuel technology similar to current AATA vehicles. Typically, an exclusive lane is dedicated to these buses in this system for at least part of the day. Nau mentioned how excited the people of Cleveland were for the opening of their BRT system, which he said remains popular there today.
Monorail: This option is an elevated track similar to Chicago’s L that offers cars with great time efficiency, using electricity that is supplied within the rail itself.
Automated Gateway Transit/Personal Rapid Transit: Driverless, automated systems similar to Detroit’s People Mover.
All these options may be far more sophisticated than what the city has now with standard AATA buses. With no projections yet on the necessary capital, URS can’t give a recommendation on what would be right for Ann Arbor and what wouldn’t be a good option. That will come during later phases of the study.
“What we’ll try to do is narrow this universe of alternatives down to a more manageable set of things that can be considered in future studies,” Nau said.
When a time does come to enact a plan, it will almost certainly need government funding – a lot of it. While a massive project is obviously unlikely to be paid for with city and state dollars alone, getting federal assistance requires a lengthy process that may take 10 years to complete, Nau said.
As for the study itself, AATA is paying for half of the $640,000 price tag. The city of Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority agreed to each pitch in $80,000. The University of Michigan makes up the rest of the funding for the study with a $160,000 contribution.
The Funding Partnership: Who Pays?
Representatives from each of the four study-funding partners were present at the meeting, saying a few words before Nau took the podium. Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, kicked off the meeting, stressing the study evolved out of a transportation plan update that was completed last year. The plan recommended action to address future needs as the community evolves.
“The issue of transportation is not one of those things that respects any boundaries,” Cooper said. Transportation impacts from downtown affect the area outside of the downtown, and the university affects the entire community. “The community is responsible not only from within, but for those who commute here from without,” Cooper said.
Roger Hewitt of the DDA followed Cooper, stating that his organization handled more than parking, and was very excited and deeply involved with this mass transit project. University planner Sue Gott from UM said she was interested in improving mobility and noted new sustainability efforts at UM where all new construction is to meet Silver LEED standards. AATA CEO Michael Ford said he wanted to move more people and be more effective for Washtenaw County and beyond.
The preliminary analysis of travel among main activity areas within the area of study in the “boomerang map” shows that the main activity areas themselves and the majority of trips between them are related to the UM campus. There are 50,000 daily trips made between central campus and north campus, for example.
From a chart presented at the June 8 open house slide presentation – and available on the connector study website – the preliminary needs study shows four trips where current travel demand would support a transportation technology more robust than a standard bus.
The four trips that would currently support more sophisticated transportation are between: North Campus and Central Campus; Medical Center and Central Campus; Downtown and Central Campus; South Campus and Central Campus
The prominence of UM-centric trips in the study area was already a concern for some who believe the project will serve UM more than the community at large. That concern factored into discussions about who should pay for the study, and later for the construction of the project.
In June 2009, when the DDA board voted to approve its $80,000 share of the study, DDA board member Sandi Smith said she had reservations about providing support for what would essentially be a “U of M trolley.” Then-board member Rene Greff, co-owner of Arbor Brewing Co., said UM had enough money to support this study itself. That was countered by DDA board member Leah Gunn’s perspective of the UM as the area’s major economic engine, which was not separate from the Ann Arbor community. As part of that discussion, mayor John Hieftje indicated that he felt it was an advantage to have the city involved in any applications for federal grants.
In detail from The Chronicle’s report of the June 3, 2009 DDA board meeting:
Board member Sandi Smith, who is also a city councilmember … had a problem providing support for a project that was essentially going to be a “U of M trolley.” She said she understood that the route was not completely determined, but she had some hesitancy, still. She stressed that if the feasibility study indicated that 70% of the ridership would come from the University of Michigan community, then the cost of construction should reflect that. Rene Greff echoed Smith’s sentiments, saying that the university had enough money to fund the study by themselves. She said that she was willing to support funding the study but stressed that there should not be an expectation in the long-term for a corresponding level for participation in the system’s construction.
For her part, board member Leah Gunn offered the perspective that the University of Michigan was the major economic engine of the city and indeed of the state. She said that just because someone attends the university or works there, it doesn’t mean they’re not part of the community. The project benefits the university, thus benefits the community as well, she said.
Hieftje indicated that the city had “not held back in making clear that the University of Michigan would need to step up.” He suggested that there would be an advantage, though, in being the entity that applied for federal grant dollars, or at least making an application in concert with the university going forward.
The discussion of the study’s funding distribution came against a backdrop of a total cost that had initially been estimated as dramatically lower – $250,000. In February 2008, the plan was to have AATA provide $100,000 and the other three partners $50,000 apiece.
When the bids came back dramatically higher than expected for a total price tag of $640,000, the initial plan was to have each funding partner contribute $160,000 apiece. The DDA and the city resisted the idea of being counted as separate funding sources, and agreed to split one $160,000 “share,” at $80,000 apiece. The AATA picked up the extra share, for a total of $320,000.
The June 8 connector study open house at the downtown library included a segment for attendees to pose questions or make statements.
Two residents made comments that highlighted the possibility that a more sophisticated transportation technology could itself be an attraction to the Ann Arbor area. Ray Detter, head of the Downtown Citizens Advisory Council, noted that there’d been an acceptance of the idea of increased density downtown. He said there could be an additional 5,000 people living downtown. A transportation connector was not just a necessity, he said, but also an amenity that would create something of an attraction, providing vitality to the downtown.
An attendee who lives and works downtown – Rob Thomas – noted that the form of some transportation technologies might have an impact on their ability to attract new riders. He wanted to know if that would factor into the analysis. In response, Nau acknowledged that rail systems did have the ability to attract new riders and that many who give it a try become believers. Construction of such a system costing hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of 2-3 years created a great deal of anticipation, he said, and when it does open, “it’s like Christmas” and people want to ride it.
Clark Charnetski expressed his confidence that high speed regional rail would be coming to Ann Arbor and that it would be important for people to have a way to get around Ann Arbor once they get here.
Another resident noted that the use of public transportation is voluntary. He asked if the idea had been explored of requiring a payment to bring a privately-owned vehicle into the city – had that been considered as a funding option? Nau answered that as far as funding options, for projects like this you don’t look at two or three different funding options, you look at 10 or 15 different possibilities. They could include everything from a tax increment finance district (TIF) to using parking meter revenues.
A city councilmember representing Ward 1, Sabra Briere, expressed concern over the potentially considerable costs of building anything with fixed guideways, whether it be rails or bus-exclusive lanes. She asked what an estimate would look like, but Nau wasn’t ready to give out even ballpark figures, saying cost-estimation was the next phase of the study.
Steve Bean, an independent mayoral candidate and chair of Ann Arbor’s environmental commission, asked Nau if there was any possibility of reducing road repair costs due to an improved transit operation, and of downsizing the size of the road network. Nau said the study had not looked at that specifically, but that has not been the experience in other cities. Although passengers enjoy these systems, the overall reduction in traffic on the roads is not significant enough to warrant a decrease in road infrastructure investments.
Later, Nau did say that if some kind of enhanced transit option were not chosen and implemented, it would be necessary to expand the road network.
Carolyn Grawi, director of advocacy and education for the Center of Independent Living, asked about the accessibility to the disabled in any of the transportation systems. Nau assured her that all systems had quick boarding processes and that if they were built with the help of federal funding, it would be “absolutely required that every system be 100 percent accessible.” In response to a question from a different audience member, Nau indicated that all of the options presented could also accommodate bicycles.
Grawi also asked about affordability, both for residents and potential riders. Nau said the cost of these projects for residents was notoriously complicated, but fare would have to be at a price “that would be appealing for the vast majority of the public.”
Additional reporting for this article was provided by Dave Askins.