Regional Transit: Where Does Ann Arbor Fit?

City council work session covers improvements in inter-city Amtrak service between Chicago and Detroit, planning for possible new Amtrak station in Ann Arbor, implementation of Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail service, and increased frequency and time of service in local region

An Ann Arbor city council work session held Oct. 14, 2013 provided a roundup of several transportation initiatives.

Regions of Transportation

Sub-regions on the national (blue), state (red) and local (green) scales were highlighted at the Ann Arbor city council’s Oct. 14, 2013 work session on regional transportation.  (Image by The Chronicle.)

The projects all fit into the general rubric of regional transportation – relative to different scales of the concept of “region.” Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor transportation program manager, led off the session with some introductory remarks that framed the session in those terms – regions defined on a national, state and more local scale.

Nationally, Amtrak provides rail service between major cities like Chicago and Detroit. And it’s to support that service that the city of Ann Arbor is currently planning for a new or reconstructed Amtrak station. A contract for a required planning study, 80% of which is funded with a federal grant, appears on the council’s Oct. 21 agenda. [Legistar file 13-1128]

On a smaller regional scale, SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) is the lead organization for a possible new kind of future service on the same tracks as the Amtrak inter-city service: an Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail service. That would be at least two years out, partly because no operating funds for the service have yet been identified. Those funds could eventually come from the nascent southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which could ask voters in a four-county region – Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne – to approve either a transit property tax or a vehicle registration fee dedicated to supporting transit.

On the smallest regional level, voters in member jurisdictions of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority could be asked as soon as May 2014 to approve additional transportation funding. The AAATA currently includes the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township – provided that the Ann Arbor city council approves the township’s membership at its Oct. 21 meeting. [Legistar file 13-1267]

As AAATA staff stressed at the Oct. 14 work session, the board of that organization has not yet made a decision to place a millage request in front of voters. If approved by voters, the additional funding – likely to be 0.7 mills – would be used to increase frequency and time of service in the local region.

Details about the service improvements are the subject of a series of public meetings, which is set to start this Thursday, Oct. 17 from 4-6 p.m. That first session takes place just before the AAATA board meeting at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location.

National Scale: Midwestern Region

For regions on a national scale, Amtrak is the provider of rail transportation. And for Amtrak, Ann Arbor is part of the midwestern region, which includes the connection between Chicago and Detroit. Amtrak’s Charlie Monte Verde ticked through some highlights of Amtrak’s operation nationally for the city council. That included the transport of 31.6 million passengers in fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30, 2013. That figure is a record, he said, continuing a trend that has seen record ridership in 10 out of the last 11 years. That’s translated to a decrease in federal operating subsidy to 12% of operating costs.

Amtrak Ridership

Amtrak ridership by month since 1994. (Chart by The Chronicle based on data from MDOT.)

In Michigan, Monte Verde told the council, Amtrak ridership has increased 63% since 2000, which has translated to a 98% increase in ticket revenue over that same period. He described Ann Arbor’s Amtrak station as the busiest in Michigan. The 2013 fiscal year had shown a 10% increase in ridership compared to FY 2012, he reported, with over 158,000 riders. That made it the busiest year in the Ann Arbor Amtrak station’s history, Monte Verde said.

Charlie Monte Verde, Amtrak

Charlie Monte Verde of Amtrak.

Monte Verde also described seven different station projects that are either in the works or have been completed, including Ann Arbor’s potential project. He said that now is the “golden era” of station construction and rehabilitation. He called Amtrak an “eager and appreciative stakeholder” as Ann Arbor seeks to construct a new state-of-the-art multi-modal rail station.

Later in the city council’s work session, MDOT director of rail operations Tim Hoeffner described a station as “the gateway to your community.” He added: “That should be your face – that should be what you want to put forward. That shouldn’t be what we want to have come forward from Lansing.”

Hoeffner contrasted the stations and the rail infrastructure with the “equipment” – the “most sexy” part of the rail operation. “It’s that new-car smell,” he said, and that’s important because that’s where passengers spend most of their time. Right now, Amtrak is doing the best it can, but he compared it to driving a 1950s car every day, and trying to keep it in good repair: Where would you find parts? Right now, he said, they think in the following terms: “Do the bathrooms smell? If they don’t, that’s a good day.”

By 2016-17, he felt that issue would be solved. A $268 million multi-state grant from the federal government would allow the purchase of new cars and locomotives. The vendor has been selected, he reported: Nippon Sharyo.

Besides the Ann Arbor station project, other Michigan station projects include: Battle Creek (complete station rehabilitation finished in June 2012); Troy-Birmingham (groundbreaking for new intermodal facility in November 2012, with expected completion in fall 2013); Dearborn (construction of a new multi-modal Amtrak and transit facility began in April 2012, with completion expected in 2013); East Lansing/Lansing (new facility to be constructed in 2014); Grand Rapids (construction ongoing to add Amtrak to Central Station); and Jackson (over $1.2 million invested since 2008 to rehabilitate the historic station).

The question of station construction was of interest to the Ann Arbor city council because of the contract associated with the Ann Arbor Station project appears on the Oct. 21 meeting agenda.

Ownership of track within Michigan was one theme of Monte Verde’s remarks. The Chicago-Detroit corridor could be divided into sub-regions based on track ownership. Amtrak owns the 97-mile stretch extending from Porter, Ind., to Kalamazoo, Mich.

State Level: Amtrak Corridor

The track ownership theme was picked up by Tim Hoeffner, MDOT’s director of rail operations, later in the meeting. Hoeffner described to the council some barriers that have been overcome and some that remain with respect to the physical condition of track between Chicago’s Union Station and Detroit’s New Center Station.

Amtrak routes and track Improvements. Just east of Chicago, the blue-highlighted section – owned by Amtrak has already been improved to support up to 110 mph operations. Further west, the green-highlighted section of track was recently acquired by MDOT from Norfolk Southern. It's expected to be have improvements made that will make it also capable of speeds up to 110 mph.

Amtrak routes and track Improvements. Just east of Chicago, the blue-highlighted section – owned by Amtrak – has already been improved to support up to 110 mph operations. Further east, the green-highlighted section of track was recently acquired by MDOT from Norfolk Southern. That section is expected to have improvements made that will make it also capable of carrying speeds up to 110 mph. (Map from Amtrak. Part of council information packet.)

Hoeffner told the council he’d spent most of the day out in the field overseeing construction and infrastructure improvements. When MDOT closed on the purchase of the track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, he said, MDOT started taking responsibility for the maintenance, using Amtrak as its contractor early this year.

That initial work focused on stabilization, but the biggest part of the construction activity started a few weeks ago, when Norfolk Southern brought in some of their construction “mega gangs” – for installing about 130,000 ties as well as sections of rail. The amount of work that will be done before Thanksgiving this year, he said, would ordinarily take two construction seasons. But Norfolk Southern had time in its construction schedule that allowed MDOT to contract with the former owner of the track to get a lot of this work done early.

Hoeffner allowed that the construction work had meant some at-grade crossings throughout Washtenaw County had to be closed for what he described as a short while. The track construction that’s happening now, he said, is not just stabilization work, but will allow the trains to attain speeds of up to 110 mph.

From Chicago, heading toward Detroit, the first 40 miles is some of the busiest section of railway in North America, Hoeffner said. But major projects are in the works that could alleviate congestion on that segment of track, he said. That came about due to MDOT taking the lead, he said, partnering with Illinois and Indiana for a feasibility study on a dedicated passenger rail route between Chicago’s Union Station and Porter, Ind. The study has progressed to the final set of alternatives in the environmental review.

On that first 40 miles of the route, near Union Station, Hoeffner also described a $130 million project to create railroad-to-railroad grade separation at the Englewood location – which is supposed to start construction in early 2016. There’s also $70 million of crossover work in Indiana, which is expected to begin after the government shutdown ends.

After that first 40 miles, Amtrak owns the next 97 miles. That 97-mile stretch extends from Porter, Ind., to Kalamazoo, Mich. Hoeffner reported that a collaborative effort between Amtrak and MDOT had already resulted in track improvements along the Porter-to-Kalamazoo 97-mile stretch that now allowed operations of up to 110 m.p.h. – making it the only significant stretch of rail with 110 m.p.h. operating capability outside of the northeast corridor of Boston, New York, and Washington D.C.

Michigan Dept. of Transportation director of rail Tim Hoeffner

Michigan Dept. of Transportation director of rail Tim Hoeffner.

Continuing eastward, the next 135-mile stretch of track – from Kalamazoo through Ann Arbor to Dearborn – was acquired last year by MDOT from Norfolk Southern. Track improvements are required under the purchase agreement. That’s now taking place ahead of schedule, Hoeffner told the council, with two typical construction seasons’ worth of work anticipated to be completed between September and Thanksgiving of this year.

In West Detroit, where Contrail transitions to Canadian National, Hoeffner said, MDOT is bidding out a new bridge, to establish a direct connection. That would take 5-10 minutes off the Amtrak running time.

What’s the motivation for MDOT to partner with Amtrak to improve ridership? Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008 shifts much of the cost of supporting Amtrak services from the federal government to the state government – starting in FY 2014 (Oct. 1, 2013). The operating assistance to Amtrak from MDOT had thus increased from about $8 million annually to $25 million starting this year on Oct. 1. Partly as a result of that, Hoeffner said, MDOT was partnering with Amtrak to try to grow ridership and thus increase revenue. The key to that is improving on-time performance, he said.

Throughout his remarks, Hoeffner stressed that the goal is not increased speed per se, and he emphasized that the term MDOT uses is “accelerated rail” not “high-speed rail” – which refers to even higher speeds. The “accelerated rail,” he said, has goals of improving reliability (hitting scheduled arrival times), providing more flexibility for travelers and reducing overall trip time. Right now, he allowed, on-time performance isn’t very good, and that’s why they’re working to improve it. They’re also working on providing information about what the delay is. Hoeffner said that to be competitive with automobile travel on the interstate, travel time between Chicago and Detroit would need to be reduced to four hours.

As one measure of the initial success in improving the train service along the Chicago-Detroit corridor, Hoeffner offered a recent anecdote. Typically Amtrak offers a tour for state legislators, where they board the train in Lansing and take the train to Chicago to hear presentations and have discussions. MDOT director Kirk Steudle usually goes on those trips, Hoeffner continued, saying that due to Steudle’s busy schedule, he might not ride the whole way.

So Steudle would typically get on at Battle Creek or Kalamazoo and ride to New Buffalo and get off there. Generally, what Hoeffner would do is have one of his staff get off the train in Battle Creek or Kalamazoo and drive Steudle’s car to New Buffalo. Steudle asked Hoeffner to do that this year: “I had to tell him no. You get a real interesting look when you tell the boss ‘No,’” he said. The reason he said no was that Amtrak service is now competitive with the automobile on the highway in that corridor.

SE Michigan Level: Ann-Arbor Detroit Commuter Rail

Also positively affected specifically by the transfer in track ownership from Norfolk Southern to MDOT would be a possible new type of service in the easternmost sub-region of the Chicago-Detroit corridor – using the same tracks that Amtrak uses for the intercity Chicago-Detroit service.

That was a highlight of Carmine Palombo’s remarks to the council. Palombo is transportation programs director at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), currently the lead organization on the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail project. That service is envisioned to provide five round trips daily between Ann Arbor and Detroit. Intermediate stops would be located in Ypsilanti, Detroit Metropolitan Airport and Dearborn.

When Norfolk Southern owned the section of track on which the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter service is planned to be offered, Palombo said, there was a considerable cost that would have been incurred for use of the track. Now that MDOT has purchased the track, he said, we have a “more benevolent owner.” “That’s going to do us well,” he added.

Palombo stressed that before passenger commuter rail could be operated, as part of the purchase agreement between Norfolk Southern and MDOT, certain track improvements have to be completed – for example, sidings that will allow for continued freight operations while adding commuter trips. Most of the money that MDOT needs to undertake those improvements has been received from the federal government, he said.

Palombo described the planned connection of the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail to the M-1 streetcar project in Detroit. That’s a project that would stretch 3.3 miles along Detroit’s Woodward Avenue with 11 stops between Larned Street in Detroit’s Central Business District up to West Grand Boulevard at the North End. Palombo described that project as starting construction next year.

While double-decker railcars to provide an Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter service have been leased by MDOT and refurbished, it’s not yet clear how the operations for such a service might be funded, Palombo said. The cars have been safety tested by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, and they’ve passed every test they’ve undergone. “They’re beautiful,” he said. Palombo mentioned the two displays of the new railcars that had been held over the summer and early fall – at the Ann Arbor Green Fair and Ypsilanti’s Heritage Festival.

But Palombo indicated that for the next two years, nothing more than perhaps some special-event trains might be possible as demonstrations. “We need some money to run this thing,” he said. Palombo indicated that SEMCOG and MDOT are “committed to moving forward on this project.” The entity that might be in a position to provide some operational and coordinating support for that project is the nascent Regional Transit Authority (RTA).

Up to now, however, the RTA has spent the majority of its effort since being established – during the lame-duck legislative session of December 2012 – completing various administrative tasks. That administrative work is nearly complete, Palombo indicated, so SEMCOG would be starting to talk to the RTA about Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail.

SE Michigan Level: Regional Transit Authority

Washtenaw County has two representatives on the board of the four-county authority, which includes Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties as well as the city of Detroit. One of those representatives, Liz Gerber, addressed the Ann Arbor city council at its Oct. 14 work session.

Washtenaw County representative to the Regional Transit Authority Liz Gerber.

Liz Gerber, a Washtenaw County representative to the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) board. Gerber is also a professor at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy. The second RTA board member from Washtenaw County is Richard Murphy.

She described a range of administrative tasks the board had been working on, to get the organization to a point where it could begin to complete its legislative mandate. That mandate includes coordinating transportation in the four-county region and operating service in four different corridors, one of which is the Detroit-Ann Arbor corridor.

However, the RTA’s enabling legislation is not mode-neutral, and makes it much easier for the RTA board to establish bus rapid transit (BRT) services than it does any rail-based service. Rail projects require a unanimous vote of the RTA board.

The RTA does not yet have any dedicated operating funds. The initial legislation passed in December 2012, combined with additional funding from MDOT, has provided an initial $650,000 to cover administrative expenses of the RTA. The RTA has also been awarded a $6 million planning grant, some of which could be applied toward a limited set of administrative costs.

One source of funds the RTA could use is MDOT’s local bus operating (LBO) funds. At the work session, Gerber stressed that under the terms of the operating agreement that the RTA had worked out with the transit providers in the RTA region, those LBO funds would be used by the RTA only as a last resort. The RTA has the ability to levy property taxes or collect vehicle registration fees – but only if approved by voters.

Local Region: Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority

Voters in the smallest of the regions discussed at the council’s Oct. 14 work session could be asked as soon as May 2014 to approve additional transportation funding. That’s the region defined by the combined geographies of the member jurisdictions in the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. That currently includes the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township – provided that the Ann Arbor city council approves the township’s membership at its Oct. 21 meeting.

CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority Michael Ford

Michael Ford, CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.

The AAATA is following direction from the Ann Arbor city council in taking the approach of expanding governance by only adding member jurisdictions located geographically near Ann Arbor who request membership. That contrasts with the all-in-one-go attempt to form a viable countywide authority in 2012, which did not gain traction and is now demised. Both the city and the township of Ypsilanti have historically received some transportation services from the AAATA through purchase-of-service agreements.

The idea of expanding the geographic footprint to include more jurisdictions that are full-fledged members of the AAATA is to establish a more stable source of the funding for transportation services in that geographic region. The more stable funding source would take the form of a millage levied by the AAATA. The power to place a millage on the ballot is one the AAATA has had all along, but has never exercised.

As AAATA staff stressed at the Oct. 14 work session, the board of that organization has not yet made a decision to place a millage request in front of voters. But that could come as soon as May 2014. If approved by voters, the additional funding – likely to be requested at the level of 0.7 mills – would be used to increase frequency and time of service in the local region.

Details about the 5-year service improvements are the subject of a series of public meetings, which is set to start this Thursday, Oct. 17 from 4-6 p.m. That first session takes place just before the AAATA board meeting at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location, 343 S. Fifth Ave.

Details on planned service improvements are available on the AAATA’s Moving You Forward website. In his remarks to the city councilmembers at their Oct. 14 work session, AAATA CEO Michael Ford was keen to emphasize that the five-year service plan improvements do not include the operation of any rail service.

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  1. By Eric Boyd
    October 16, 2013 at 6:02 pm | permalink

    Was there any indication whether the consultant studying locations for Ann Arbor Station will consider the intersection of the two tracks? While I could imagine this could be very expensive, it also would provide tremendous opportunity to connect the Howell – Toledo route to the Detroit – Chicago route.

  2. October 17, 2013 at 11:09 am | permalink

    Re (1) that was discussed at the public meeting on October 8 about likely station locations. The consultant said that this idea had been considered, but that there were numerous obstacles and it was not on the plan of favored locations for a downtown station. More information, including the meeting presentation, here: [link]

  3. By Eric Boyd
    October 17, 2013 at 12:30 pm | permalink

    Interesting. (I had read the original article but not gone back and read the presentation after it was posted.)

    From the slides, it looks like the chief obstacle from a WALLY perspective is that the curvature of the track as it passes over the Amtrack tracks is too sharp to allow station construction.

  4. By Nathanael
    November 11, 2013 at 12:46 am | permalink

    Some very minor corrections to an otherwise good article.
    1 – from east of Dearborn to south of Detroit, the track in the “West Detroit” area is owned by “Conrail”, not “Contrail”.
    2 – The “Englewood flyover” is due to be *finished* (not started) in 2016.
    3 – The new Dearborn station is now scheduled to open in 2014, not 2013.
    4 – The Troy Transit Center is probably going to open in 2014 (rather than 2013) for reasons too sad and pathetic to describe.