PAC Gets Update on Fuller Road Station

Deal between city, UM near completion; new funding awarded

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (May 17, 2011): This month’s PAC meeting focused on one topic – an update on the proposed Fuller Road Station, a large parking structure, bus depot and possible train station being planned on city-owned property near the University of Michigan’s medical campus.

Laptop with slide presentation on Fuller Road Station

Laptop with Fuller Road Station presentation, given by Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor's transportation program manager.

Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager, reprised a presentation he’s given dozens of times over the last two years to various public bodies and community groups. The newest details relate to recent federal funding earmarked for the project – $2.8 million from the Federal Rail Administration, to pay for environmental assessment and engineering at the site. Cooper admitted he had started to feel a bit like the boy who cried “Wolf!” regarding potential funding, but he noted that the “wolf” has materialized – in the form of the grant award.

The $2.8 million won’t come close to covering the estimated $121 million cost of the full project, including a rail station, which is estimated to cost about $18 million. But more than the funding itself, Cooper said, the award is significant because it indicates the FRA’s willingness to be the lead federal agency for this project.

Cooper also reported that the agreement being crafted by UM and city staff is nearing completion, and will likely be made public within a month. It will govern the construction, operation and maintenance of Fuller Road Station, and will include details about the project’s financing. Cooper told PAC that they would have the chance to review the agreement before it heads to the city council for approval.

Fuller Road Station

Commissioners had received their last briefing on Fuller Road Station at their July 2010 meeting, though the project has come up informally at other meetings since then. The site plan received approval from the city’s planning commission at their Sept. 21, 2010 meeting, but has not yet been approved by city council.

The project – at what’s now a city-owned surface parking lot south of Fuller Road, east of East Medical Center Drive – is being planned by the city and the University of Michigan as a large parking structure with bus bays and a bike station, with plans eventually to build a train station on the same site. PAC has been interested in the project because it’s on land that’s long been part of the parks system – revenues from UM for leasing the current parking lot contribute to the city’s budget for parks.

Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, gave Tuesday’s presentation. Also on hand was Dave Dykman, project manager for Fuller Road Station.

Fuller Road Station: Public Commentary

At the beginning of the meeting, George Gaston spoke to commissioners during public commentary time. He told them he lived in a condominium across from Island Park, overlooking the Huron River, Fuller Road and the University of Michigan medical complex. He has a vested interest in the Fuller Road Station project. PAC should not allow the project to move forward without full public engagement, he said. If they believe that building this structure is in the best public interest, then the parks system, as landlords, should at least receive adequate income from it. He cautioned that once they open the door to development on parkland, “it will be a hard door to close.”

Other locations for the project should be considered, Gaston said, such as the DTE/MichCon property across from the current Amtrak station, or property between North Main Street and the Huron River, or on UM’s Mitchell Field. Wherever it’s located, Amtrak should be on board and committed from the start. Putting together the ribbon of parks along the river has taken too long and involved too many people to just blithely begin dismantling, he said. It is PAC’s responsibility as park stewards to make sure that doesn’t happen.

As a sidebar issue, Gaston said, the Greek Revival shelter on Island Park needs attention – the roof is leaking and is starting to rot.

Fuller Road Station: Staff Update

Cooper began by reviewing some background on the project. He first mentioned the Amtrak station, saying that it was one of the original motivations for exploring a new rail station. He noted that the recent $2.8 million in federal funding is earmarked for environmental studies related to relocating Amtrak to the Fuller Road Station site.

City planning over the years has also set the stage for Fuller Road Station, Cooper said, citing the city’s 2006 Model for Mobility initiative, as well as the 2009 transportation master plan update.

Finally, the University of Michigan’s parking needs in the Wall Street area, based on demands from its growing medical campus south of Fuller Road, also came into play, Cooper said. It was the convergence of all these issues – combined with regional planning for rail by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT) and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) – that started discussions leading to Fuller Road Station. Those talks involve other partners, he noted, including the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

Mike Anglin, Eli Cooper

Ann Arbor city councilmember Mike Anglin, left, talks with Eli Cooper, the city's transportation program manager, prior to the start of the May 17, 2011 park advisory commission meeting. Anglin serves as an ex-officio member of PAC.

President Obama’s administration has put a priority on high-speed rail, Cooper said, and one of the corridors that’s receiving attention – and funding – runs between Chicago and Detroit.

Cooper noted that in previous presentations, he’s highlighted the rail station and other aspects of Fuller Road Station, rather than the parking component. This time, he said, “let’s put it up top” – the first phase will include a structure with about 1,000 parking spots. Other elements include five bus bays and a storage area for around 191 bikes. There will also be upgrades to the shared-use paths on the site, and a public art component. [A task force for public art at Fuller Road Station has already been meeting – as a capital project, the station includes $250,000 set aside for public art. At its April 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor public art commission received an update on the task force's work, including a timeline for selecting artists.]

In addition to being a transportation hub for pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, buses and rail, Fuller Road Station will serve as a gateway to the city, Cooper said. Iconic architectural elements are planned for the design to achieve that goal, he said – though he alluded to critics of the initial project renderings by saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The project will also include sustainable design features, he said.

Cooper noted that Fuller Road Station will be contained in the footprint of the current surface parking lot that’s on the site, and that the adjacent soccer field will remain in place.

Fuller Road Station: Staff Update – Phase 1.1

At a city council work session a few months ago, councilmembers had asked about how the first phase – the large parking structure and bus bays – related to possible rail service. In response to those questions, Cooper said, a new design was developed to incorporate platforms for possible commuter rail. He emphasized that this new intermediate design phase – dubbed Phase 1.1 – was not likely to be implemented, and would not be presented in the site plan for city council approval.

Commuter rail platforms would be far shorter than those needed for intercity rail, Cooper said – 340-380 feet, compared to 900 feet. A separate track would also need to be built, alongside the existing track, so that commuter rail and high-speed rail both could be accommodated safely.

The Phase 1.1 design also entailed some reduction in parking capacity, due to the need for commuter rail platforms, he noted. The design would be consistent with the designs that MDOT is developing for stations in Ypsilanti and Detroit Metro airport, he said. But he again emphasizing that at this point, there are not plans to implement these changes. Although that could change, Cooper said he didn’t think it would, in large part because recent federal funding superseded the need for an intermediate phase like this. He apologized for any confusion this might cause.

Fuller Road Station: Staff Update – Next Steps

Cooper outlined what will happen in the next several months related to Fuller Road Station. The city council will be asked to approve formally the project’s Phase 1 site plan, following the successful completion of an agreement with UM to build, operate and maintain the facility.

After the council gives approval, the city would start immediately with work to relocate utilities on the site – bids have already been secured, he said. That might start in June or July, although there’s no firm date for council approval. Construction of the structure itself would ideally begin in the winter of 2011-12, he said, to be completed in 2013. It’s a 14- to 18-month project, and the start date hinges on completion of an agreement with UM, Cooper said, which is being “intensely negotiated.”

That agreement will give details about the project’s financing, based on terms set in the memorandum of understanding (MOU), Cooper said. One key interest for PAC was the preservation of parking available for parks users, he noted – that will be reflected in the agreement. Also included will be details about the facility’s operation and long-term maintenance. Cooper said it was a sensitive document and he didn’t have details about it at this time, but these elements were the framework.

Environmental assessment has been underway since November 2009, Cooper said, when the city signed its MOU with the university. A draft report has been submitted to both the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Rail Administration. The city is awaiting execution of an agreement with FRA, which will become the lead federal agency for this project. They’ll be reviewing the draft environmental report, and making a final declaration on it – possibly by the winter of 2011-12.

Fuller Road Station: Staff Update – Phase 2

On Monday, May 9, local, state and federal officials converged for a press conference in Detroit, where U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $200 million in federal funds for advancing high-speed intercity rail service in Michigan. That’s in addition to $160 million announced last year, earmarked for high-speed rail pending a final agreement between the Federal Rail Administration and the state.

Cooper, who attended the May 9 event, said Gov. Rick Snyder spoke and had made positive remarks about the value of high-speed rail for the state’s economy. That was the first time he’d heard Snyder comment in that way, Cooper said, and it was good news to hear the governor seemed supportive of the concept.

Ann Arbor’s $2.8 million grant was part of that $200 million, and is designated for environmental assessment and preliminary engineering studies – for the station and drop off area, as well as for the rail platform and rail work, including track, switches and signals. The city has not yet received formal notification of the federal award, which will outline terms and conditions, Cooper said – those details will influence the city’s next steps.

Cooper noted that if they’d had a shovel-ready project, they might have been able to get more federal funding.

He said it’s noteworthy that a federal agency – the Federal Rail Administration – is now interested in the project, as evidenced by the $2.8 million grant. The Federal Transit Administration never signed on in that way, though the city had been working with that agency. FRA officials will determine whether the project needs just an environmental assessment report, or a more complex environmental impact statement, Cooper said.

After the FRA signs off on the environmental assessment, Phase 2 design can begin in earnest, Cooper said. It would build off of Phase 1, and include a relocated intercity passenger rail station and associated rail work. The city will engage Amtrak as a stakeholder, he said – the rail agency has provided a 65-page design manual, with details about its needs. A design for this phase would allow the city to pursue grant funding for it, Cooper said.

Phase 2 could cost $20-$30 million, Cooper said. Details regarding cost-sharing would need to be determined, with partners including MDOT, Amtrak and SEMCOG.

Fuller Road Station: PAC Comments, Questions

Commissioners asked a range of questions over more than an hour. This report provides highlights the discussion, organized by topic.

Fuller Road Station: PAC Comments, Questions – Funding

Gwen Nystuen asked how much the city has spent on this project to day. Dykman replied that the only expenditures approved by council was about $640,000 to JJR for their design and environmental assessment work. Their contract is coming to an end, he noted. Nystuen asked whether the cost of city staff time had been calculated so far – it had not, Dykman said. [The Chronicle has queried the city about how much has been paid for the work of Mitchell & Moaut, the Ann Arbor design firm that's been working on the project, and what entity is covering those costs. That information has not yet been provided.]

Doug Chapman, Gwen Nystuen

Park advisory commissioners Doug Chapman and Gwen Nystuen.

David Barrett asked what the legislative process entailed actually to receive the $2.8 million in federal funding. He noted that some states had refused the grants. Cooper wasn’t sure – those details weren’t yet available, he said, so it’s not clear whether the funds will come directly to the city from the federal level, or via MDOT. He reiterated that the important step isn’t just the funding – it’s that the FRA has now become the federal agency responsible for this project.

What’s the timeframe for receiving the funds? Barrett asked. Cooper said he didn’t want to speculate on what Gov. Snyder may or may not do – the focus now is on the state budget, and the feds haven’t put a timeline on accepting the funding. But unlike government leaders in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, Snyder and others have indicated an interest in the evolution of high-speed rail in Michigan, he said.

Nystuen clarified that the $2.8 million is related to the high-speed rail infrastructure, not commuter rail. Yes, Cooper said. They haven’t pursued commuter rail funding, instead relying on MDOT and SEMCOG for that work. The city is cooperating with those efforts, but not taking the lead.

Tim Berla wanted to make sure that when the agreement between the city and UM is revealed, it will clearly indicate the costs for Phase 1, where the funding will come from, and other terms, like contract length. He confirmed that the agreement will be a public document. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said that PAC will be briefed on the agreement in advance of city council taking action.

Sam Offen wanted Cooper to remind the city’s negotiating team that PAC felt the city’s parks system was receiving insufficient funds from UM to compensate for use of the property, based on terms outlined in the memorandum of understanding. He wanted to make sure that someone spoke up for the city in that regard. Cooper said he would communicate that message, and Smith told Offen that he had already raised the issue.

By way of background, a year ago PAC considered a resolution that called for the city council to abandon the Fuller Road Station project, or at the least to get a better deal from the university in terms of revenues provided to the city for leasing the structure. [Chronicle coverage: "Better Deal Desired for Fuller Road Station"] That caught the attention of mayor John Hieftje, an advocate of the project, who attended PAC’s May 18, 2010 meeting and asked commissioners for their support. [Chronicle coverage: "Hieftje Urges Unity on Fuller Road Station"]

His request led commissioners to reconsider their position, dropping a call to stop the project but still urging city council to work for a more open process and to ensure a better financial deal to benefit the parks system. [Chronicle coverage: "PAC Softens Stance on Fuller Road Station"]

Fuller Road Station: PAC Comments, Questions – Environmental Impact

Barrett asked if any permits have been pulled for work next to the Huron River. Dykman said no work is being done by the river at this point. The city has applied to the MDEQ for a permit to work on restoring a detention basin for the existing surface parking lot at the Fuller Road site, he said, but they haven’t yet received the permit.

Offen noted that environmental assessment work had started in 2009. What were the findings? Cooper said the recommendation that’s now been delivered to the Federal Rail Administration is that the assessment found no significant environmental impact to the site. But only the FRA can make that finding official, he said, and the agency hasn’t made a determination yet.

Fuller Road Station: PAC Comments, Questions – Amtrak

Nystuen asked whether the city has been in communication with Amtrak regarding whether the rail agency would want to relocate into Fuller Road Station.

Cooper replied that for Amtrak, stations are actually a nuisance. In his initial conversations with Amtrak, officials indicated interest in relocating to a new station that met their design specifications, as long as it was cost-neutral to them – that is, as long as they didn’t have to pay for it, and that it didn’t cost them more than it did to operate their current station on Depot Street. He said Amtrak has been a full supporter of Fuller Road Station, but building a new station would require careful coordination with their needs and with MDOT, as the state sponsor of Amtrak.

Nystuen asked whether the city would be responsible for operating the station. It would clearly be a city-owned structure, Cooper said, but details of the operation and maintenance would need to be worked out. Although sometimes Amtrak chooses to contract with local entities for that service, Cooper said he didn’t want to speculate whether such a contract might be with MDOT or a transit authority like AATA. Ultimately, though, the city would be responsible for the station. Responding to another question from Nystuen, Cooper said he wasn’t aware that the city had paid Amtrak anything at this point.

Mike Anglin wondered why Ann Arbor’s station wasn’t picked for improvements, as part of the commuter rail demonstration project. It’s an ugly site, he said. The nearby DTE/MichCon property is highly contaminated and might be eligible for brownfield cleanup, he said. But that isn’t being considered.

Cooper said the intent of the commuter rail demonstration project was to keep costs as low as possible – the idea was to build on existing stations. He said he didn’t think SEMCOG, the lead agency in that project, had given full consideration to Ann Arbor. There are a lot of issues associated with commuter rail, he said, but the primary needs relate to station access and parking. The city has talked to MichCon about using the property in that area for parking, but they haven’t gotten anywhere, he said. Cooper also noted that Amtrak doesn’t do commuter rail, so it’s not interested in issues related to getting commuter rail off the ground. There’s a lot a work ahead before that can happen, he said.

Fuller Road Station: PAC Comments, Questions – Design

Nystuen said that when this project was first unveiled, the focus had been on a “glorious” train station. Later, the station and the parking structure had been separated into two phases. Why did that happen, she asked.

Cooper said the original thought was to keep the project as one structure, but after a two-day workshop with key stakeholders, the idea emerged that the train station should be an “architectural gem,” separate from the parking structure. The footprint has been unchanged, however – the same as the current parking lot, with the intent to minimize intrusion into parkland.

There have been questions about the design and layout, he said, but this is just a starting point. As the project is reviewed and developed, and as the city applies for additional funding, the design could change, Cooper said. “Where we wind up could be different.”

Fuller Road Station: PAC Comments, Questions – Trail Systems, Roundabout

Christopher Taylor asked for an update at the Fuller Road/Maiden Lane/East Medical Center Drive intersection. In February 2011, Ann Arbor city council had authorized a $460,139 contract with DLZ Michigan Inc. to study and engineer a possible roundabout there.

Julie Grand, Christopher Taylor

Julie Grand, chair of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission, and Christopher Taylor, a city councilmember and ex-officio member of PAC.

Cooper said the city has been looking at improving that intersection since he took this job in 2005. It’s being handled separately from the Fuller Road Station because the intersection needs to be addressed, regardless of the other project. In addition to the contract with DLZ, the city has a separate agreement with North Carolina State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) to analyze previous studies that have been done there.

Taylor asked whether construction of Phase 1 or 2 of Fuller Road Station would impede construction of a roundabout. Cooper pointed out that the intersection work has not been funded. His sense is that Phase 1 would be well underway before the city figures out what to do with that intersection. Dykman added that it would be preferable to wait until after Fuller Road Station is completed before starting work on the intersection, because construction traffic could damage the road.

Berla noted that the Fuller Road/Maiden Lane/East Medical Center Drive intersection is inconvenient for anyone taking the Border-to-Border trail, and he was disappointed that the design didn’t address that. Instead, it seems there will be a roundabout – which would be even more difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate. And there would be additional cars coming to that area because of Fuller Road Station. Wouldn’t it be better to address the trails as part of the design?

Cooper said the existing trail going through the site will be widened to 10 feet. He said he wouldn’t debate whether more cars will be passing through – there’s clearly a fairly high level of activity there. There’s less activity on the north side of Fuller Road, so that would be a safer, calmer path. But he’d leave it to the parks staff to figure out how to guide pedestrians and cyclists to use that route instead.

DLZ will be taking the lead on this as well, looking at previous studies done at that intersection, Dykman said. He noted that ITRE has looked at different scenarios for pedestrians there, and thought there could be benefits from installing HAWK (high intensity activated crosswalk) signals on each of the four legs of the roundabout, like the HAWK installed last year at Huron and Chapin. They’ll be looking at a variety of options for pedestrians at that intersection, he said.

Offen said he’d noticed references to two trails on the map showing the site design. He asked for more details about those. Cooper said that when they started talking about this project, they asked parks staff to participate. They’re also interested in incorporating elements of the city’s non-motorized transportation plan into the site. The trails might be incorporated into the Fuller Road Station project, or handled separately, he said.

Fuller Road Station master concept plan

Fuller Road Station master concept plan. (Links to larger image.)

Julie Grand asked if there had been any changes to the site plan to incorporate concerns raised about pedestrians or cyclists. Cooper said there haven’t been changes in that regard.

Offen confirmed with park planner Amy Kuras that the trail system planned for that area hadn’t been redesigned since the Fuller Road Station was proposed. Commissioners and staff discussed ways to connect the trails in that area, including how the trails might cross the railroad tracks, either via an underpass or bridge.

Cooper noted that the master plan calls for constructing elevated platforms on the north and south sides of the railroad tracks, connected via a skybridge.

Nystuen said it seemed obvious that the trail system should be built and functional before Fuller Road Station is constructed – it should certainly be included as part of the project. Cooper replied that Phase 1 of the project has never included trails, and that he’s not aware of any plans that would fund trails as part of it.

Later in the discussion, Smith returned to the topic, saying that the original Border-to-Border trail runs north of Fuller – it’s intended for recreation. There’s also a path on the south side of the road that’s used more by people who commute by bike. He thought he understood that there might be opportunities to look at how that commuter path interacts with traffic near the proposed Fuller Road Station. Cooper replied that there will be an on-road bike path, and the existing path will be widened to 10 feet. Beyond that, he said he’d not meant to imply that any other changes are planned.

Smith said the reality is that although they can try to get people to use the northern path, people will use the path that best works for them. He hoped they could do whatever possible to improve it.

Cooper noted that Phase 1 of Fuller Road Station calls for a bike station, and is intended as a transfer point for people who ride their bikes there, then walk or use a bus or train to their final destination. Fuller Road Station will be very busy, particularly at certain times of the day, he said – that alone might be enough to encourage people to use the northern path. But ultimately, people make their own choices. For him, Cooper said he preferred riding a bike on the street – it seemed safer and less annoying in the traffic flow than dodging pedestrians.

Fuller Road Station: PAC Comments, Questions – Project Management

Offen asked who’ll manage the project. Those details are still being worked out in the agreement between the city and UM, Cooper said. The city will be managing the utility relocation work, but the university is expected to take the lead on the overall Fuller Road Station construction.

Fuller Road Station: PAC Comments, Questions – Sale of Land, Public Process

After Cooper had left the meeting, commissioners returned to the topic of Fuller Road Station for additional discussion. Barrett said it would be useful to make clear to the public how the city got to this point regarding the use of parkland. The feedback he’s getting is that people feel the commission isn’t doing its job to protect parkland. It would be helpful to explain how the process evolved to make Fuller Road Station happen without a vote on the sale of land. Taylor replied that the process is the absence of a sale. Barrett said he didn’t want to debate, but that if it quacked like a duck – well, he said, “let’s stand up and say how we got here, that’s all.”

Smith clarified that the land is zoned PL, which stands for public land, not parkland. The planning commission had recommended amending the permissible uses for public land at its May 4, 2010 meeting. [The planning commission recommended changing to language in Chapter 55 of the city code, which lists permitted principal uses for public land (PL). The change was to delete the use of “municipal airports” and replace it with “transportation facilities.” The city council later approved the change at its July 6, 2010 meeting.]

Nystuen said that Barrett had raised a very important question. It’s confusing, she said. If the city council approves the Fuller Road Station site plan, then the land becomes a transportation facility, not parkland. But it’s been city parkland since the 1930s, she said. Taylor observed that it’s been a parking lot since the early Clinton administration.

Nystuen replied that it wasn’t previously a sale of the land. Nor is it now, Taylor said. But Nystuen contended that the parking lot is a use for parks. As Fuller Road Station, the 10-acre site would no longer be parkland.

Tim Berla

Tim Berla, Ann Arbor park advisory commissioner.

Berla argued that Fuller Road Station doesn’t break the city charter amendment that states the city must get voter approval before selling parkland – even though some people see it as a de facto land sale. By way of analogy, “just because I consider my car to be a Rolls Royce, it’s not – it’s a Subaru,” he said. And the land hasn’t been sold, he said. If you’re against the project, that’s a political decision, he added, and you should contact your city council representative and ask them to vote against it.

Grand noted that PAC has already made a statement on this issue. [PAC passed a resolution at its June 15, 2010 meeting that called for city council to make available a complete plan of Fuller Road Station – including any significant proposed agreements, such as what the university will pay the city for use of the structure – allowing sufficient time for a presentation at a televised PAC meeting before council votes on the project. The resolution also asked that staff and council ensure the project results in a net revenue gain for the parks system.]

Grand also pointed out that there’s a public perception that PAC has control over the city’s parkland. “We have no control,” she said. “We can just advise, and we have made a statement to that effect.”

Fuller Road Station: Public Commentary Redux

At the end of the meeting, Larry Deck of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition talked about the trail system as it relates to Fuller Road Station. He reminded commissioners that WBWC had presented them with a statement last year on this issue. The trail system in that area has been planned for a long time, he said. When bridges were built over Huron River there in the 1980s, accommodations were made for future trails to run underneath. He agreed that it would be good to build the trails before Fuller Road Station is constructed, but if that’s not possible, they at least need to show where the trails would run, especially between the existing trail and the underpass at East Medical Center Drive. There are topographical issues to consider. There’s no sense in having plans if those plans are ignored every time a development comes up, he said.

Alice Ralph said as she’s absorbed all the information about Fuller Road Station, it seems that they’ve missed some early opportunities to improve this project. With the new emphasis on rail and a new train station, the thing that’s bogging this down is the parking garage. The future plans for that site possibly make the parking garage less relevant. She wondered what design energy and money would be available if they eliminated 800 spaces in a parking garage and devoted that to all the other components of the project. It’s something to think about sooner rather than later, she said.

Council Report: 2006 Millage

Gwen Nystuen asked for a report on the Monday, May 16 Ann Arbor city council meeting. Christopher Taylor, a city councilmember who serves as an ex-officio member of PAC, reported that council had revised its administrative policy on how the 2006 parks millage is to be spent. Funds outside the general fund can now count as general fund money for the purpose of the policy, as long as those funds are not drawn from the parks millage.

However, Taylor said, they took no action to restore $90,000 to the proposed FY 2012 budget for parks – that’s the amount that the original administrative policy would require, if it had not been amended.

Nystuen asked whether the resolution that council passed would return to the original policy regarding funding for the city’s natural areas preservation program (NAP). [The city council had revised the 2006 administrative policy during the FY 2010 budget cycle, so that millage funding for NAP would not automatically increase by 3% every year, as had previously been the case.]

No, Taylor said, that wasn’t part of the resolution.

Nystuen said she was very concerned that council seems to have retreated from its original policy regarding how the 2006 parks millage can be used.

Parks and recreation manager Colin Smith weighed in, saying he’d attended Monday’s council meeting. He reminded commissioners that the change in policy regarding NAP happened last year and had been approved by PAC at the time. [Nystuen had been the lone commissioner voting against that move. See Chronicle coverage: "Park Commission OKs Fee Increases, Budget"]

Taylor said they were still working to figure out how to restore $90,000 to the parks budget in FY 2012 – Monday’s council meeting has been continued to next Monday, May 23, because of lingering budget issues.

Parks Manager’s Report: Gallup, Argo, SNAG, Omnibus Millage

Smith updated PAC on recent grants received by parks and recreation. Huron Hills Golf Course received a $12,000 grant from the National Recreation and Parks Association to pilot a program called SNAG – Starting New at Golf – aimed at children 4-5 years old. The city was one of only 14 agencies nationwide to pilot this program, Smith said, and it’s a good opportunity for Huron Hills, since it fits with the course’s goals.

Also, the city was awarded a $7,500 state grant for the design of the Gallup Park boat livery. They’ve applied for larger grants and are still awaiting word on those, he said, but it’s good news that this small grant came through so quickly.

David Barrett, Colin Smith

Ann Arbor park advisory commissioner David Barrett, left, and Colin Smith, the city's parks and recreation manager.

There’s no construction happening at Argo, Smith reported, referring to a major project that would reconstruct a bypass channel in the Argo Dam headrace and add whitewater features along the Huron River. The city has submitted a permit application to the state, which reviewed it and asked for more information. The city responded to that request in early May. Smith said they still expect to start work this summer, to be completed by mid-November.

Smith also reported on an item related to current budget talks. At a May 9 city council work session, some councilmembers had asked what the parks budget would look like if all operations were funded by a millage. It would take roughly $9 million – about twice what the current millage covers. This gives the council an idea of the scope of parks operations, and Smith said he only mentioned it to PAC as a point of information. He said he was sure there’d be more questions regarding that in the future.

He also said staff will be bringing a resolution to PAC’s June meeting for approval of architectural and engineering services contracts – to select consultants that are on retainer for parks projects. This cycle, 26 firms applied and staff has selected five to be put on retainer, he said. During interviews, city staff asked firms how they’d handle renovations for the Greek Revival shelter on Island Park – an item that was brought up during public commentary earlier in the meeting – as well as repairs of the pergola at West Park. Both historic structures are in need of repair, he said, and that work will likely be done in the fall.

Finally, Smith reported that the city’s outdoor swimming pools are slated to open on May 28 for the season. If it’s 55 degrees over Memorial Day weekend, he said, that would be bad.

Present: David Barrett, Doug Chapman, Tim Berla, Julie Grand, Sam Offen, Gwen Nystuen, John Lawter, councilmember Mike Anglin (ex-officio), councilmember Christopher Taylor (ex-officio). Also Colin Smith, city parks manager.

Absent: Tim Doyle, Karen Levin

Next meeting: PAC’s meeting on Tuesday, June 21, 2011 begins at 4 p.m. in the city hall second-floor council chambers, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]


  1. May 22, 2011 at 1:17 pm | permalink

    It is not a true statement that Amtrak doesn’t do commuter rail. I commuted by Amtrak for over 8 years (San Diego area – Los Angeles area). I rode with many fellow commuters and times were adjusted for business travel. There was even a discounted travel coupon book with 10 rides per book.

    I don’t know to what extent Amtrak supports commuter systems elsewhere, but a quick search found this example: “Acela Express offers hourly service downtown to downtown during peak morning and afternoon rush hours between New York, Washington, DC and intermediate cities“.

    Reviewing the schedule, I find that a commute between Philadelphia and New York would be very doable, though expensive. There are at least 8 trains from Philadelphia to New York leaving before 8:00 and arriving before 9:00. Different trains cost more or less depending on amenities but the cheapest is $48 one way (leaves before 6 a.m.). These trains have some intermediate stops but no train stops at all of them, so from various locations in New Jersey one would have to select from a lesser number of choices.

    The projected commuter train to Detroit has many stops, including Ypsilanti, the not yet built station in Westland (for Detroit Metro via shuttle), and Dearborn. “Milk train” stops like this slow down commuting quite a bit. The current train from Detroit to Ann Arbor leaves at 6:48 and arrives in Ann Arbor at 7:48, with one stop in Dearborn. The ticket cost is $11.00, a bargain. When I was commuting by train, the ticket cost consumed about 30% of my pretax income (commuting costs are not tax-deductible).

    If Amtrak is not to operate a commuter rail in this area, that imposes a whole new level of operational requirements on any hypothetical commuter system. I wonder whether those have been spelled and costed out recently. There are so many complicating factors to operating a commuter service that will work, not just on an engineering basis, but on the basis of time and affordability that will bring adequate ridership.

  2. By Brandon
    May 23, 2011 at 11:00 am | permalink

    The distinction of what is and what isn’t commuter rail can get blurry in California and the Northeast, but Amtrak doesn’t do commuter rail.

    In fact, it’s forbidden by law to start up commuter rail operations. The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act limits Amtrak to funding the Northeast Corridor and trains that travel at least 750 miles. Amtrak’s mandate from day one has been to provide intercity services.

    Amtrak can operate a commuter rail system, which it does in several cities across the country, and could do here. But that’s on a contract basis, with Amtrak essentially providing the engineers, conductors and maintenance staff.

  3. By Tom Whitaker
    May 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm | permalink

    Alice Ralph makes a good point about the Fuller Road Parking Structure getting in the way of a reasonable community discussion about rail, whether it is high speed or commuter or whatever.

    Proponents of this project are biting off way more than they can chew; trying to stuff a huge parking structure (that will immediately undermine any mass-transit commuter rail), bus transfer station, bike parking, etc., onto river-adjacent parkland that has taken years to assemble, and is located well away from the urban center of the community.

    By all means, let’s talk about cooperative ways to reduce congestion and improve the efficiency of transportation in Ann Arbor. Let’s talk about rail, too. But this enormous parking structure on parkland, which will only benefit UM, is simply a non-starter and a distraction.

    Fuller Road, two decades ago, was a pleasant drive through natural areas, recreational parks, and North Campus, which was developed with an emphasis on maintaining the natural woodsy environment. Now the drive is just one parking lot after another, from UM Hospital to Glazier Way, where even more parking lots absorb the heat of the day. Our Huron River greenway, is now a parkway, as in parking lots, not parks. The least they could do is eliminate all those satellite surface lots in trade for building this car warehouse.

  4. By SGA2
    May 23, 2011 at 3:28 pm | permalink

    If there are a couple of passing places, fast trains can pass stopping trains and it makes the whole thing work better for many more people. More expensive to set up, though.

  5. May 26, 2011 at 9:29 am | permalink

    The current Amtrak station, while small and dysfunctional, is across the street from one restaurant/bar and down the block from another, and an easy and pleasant walk to town. What kind of “gateway to the City” would the new station be? It’s going to be huge and creepy with that giant parking structure attached to it and no one around. Getting downtown on foot or bike from there is a very unpleasant experience with the Fuller / Med Ctr Drive intersection in the way. Anyone who has never been to Ann Arbor and gets off the train there is going to have a very bad impression of our town.