Council May Seek Voter OK On Rail Station

Also: Ann Arbor needs new local match for federal funding

If a study essential for a new train station in Ann Arbor is to move forward, the city will need to identify several hundred thousand dollars in required local matching funds – for up to $2,806,400 in federal grant money. The Ann Arbor city council is set to consider allocating more funds at its Oct. 15 meeting, in a resolution that also includes a commitment to ask for voter approval before building the station.

The city now needs to provide around $550,000 in new matching funds in order to receive the federal money to complete the work. The federal grant funds are still available – and according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the intent is to work with the city of Ann Arbor to see the project through to completion.

The Ann Arbor city council had voted 9-2 to accept the federal money – through the FRA’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program – at its June 4, 2012 meeting. That acceptance was based on the understanding that around $701,600 in already-expended city funds could count toward a required 20% match.

But now the FRA has informed the city that none of its previously incurred expenses are eligible to count toward the match on the grant, which would fund completion of a preliminary engineering and environmental assessment for a new rail station in Ann Arbor.

Responding to an emailed query from The Chronicle, Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje indicated that a resolution will appear on the city council’s Oct. 15 meeting agenda that addresses the determination made by the FRA. The resolution reflects both a financial and a political strategy. The financial strategy is to allocate money from the city’s general fund budget. The political strategy includes a commitment in the resolution to submit the construction of a new rail station to a popular vote. The political component of the strategy is related to the fact that the proposed  Fuller Road location  for the new rail station is city parkland.

Financial Strategy

The city’s financial strategy now, as reflected in the resolution to be placed on the council’s Oct. 15 agenda, is to revise its general fund FY 2013 budget. The $550,000 amount to be allocated from the general fund reserve by the council’s resolution is based on a lower total cost estimate for the study. Initially, the study was projected to cost $3.5 million, which would have required a 20% match of about $700,000. Now it’s expected that the project can be completed for about $2.75 million.

The resolution directs the city administrator to seek as much as $300,000 in contributions from “other eligible local partners” to offset the cost of the local match. If the full $300,000 could be identified – from sources like the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – that would leave the city’s eventual share at $250,000.

As part of the city’s FY 2013 budget, $307,781 had already been allocated for the rail station study – as a contingency if the University of Michigan did not pay invoices associated with some already-completed work. That contingency became a reality in August when the city and the university agreed that the money was not owed under a memorandum of understanding between the two bodies. The FRA’s determination means that work for which the $307,781 had been allocated is not eligible to be counted as part of the local match.

Those already-expended funds had been used in connection with work associated with the Fuller Road Station – for conceptual planning, environmental documentation efforts and some preliminary engineering. The city paid for that work from its major street fund, alternative transportation fund, and previously existing economic development funds over the past three years.

Fuller Road Station was a conceptual pre-cursor to what is now called the Ann Arbor Rail Passenger Station. In partnership with the University of Michigan, the proposed Fuller Road Station included a 1,000-space parking structure to be built in conjunction with a new rail station on an identified site nestled between Fuller Road and East Medical Center Drive, adjacent to the UM medical campus. The location is controversial, because it’s on city parkland. However, UM withdrew from that project earlier this year, on Feb. 10. The university decided instead to revisit its earlier plans to build additional parking on Wall Street.

When the council accepted the HSIPR grant at its June 4, 2012 meeting, the council also approved a $196,192 amendment to an existing contract with SmithGroup JJR for continued study and planning work that had been started in connection with the Fuller Road Station project. The work under the contract is supposed to be funded from the HSIPR grant, and will involve continued “… re-examination of the current program definition to affirm it is consistent with the stakeholder goals for the Ann Arbor Rail Passenger Station Project, and revisions as required to the conceptual plan” as well as completion of required National Environmental Policy Act documentation.

Political Strategy

The political strategy for addressing the FRA determination is to commit to setting a date on which the question of proceeding with construction of a new rail station would be submitted to a voter referendum.

RESOLVED, That at or before the completion of a final design for the Ann Arbor Station project, City Council will set a date by which the City will submit the question of moving forward with construction to a vote of the citizens of Ann Arbor; and …

The council had considered in late summer placing a more general issue on the November ballot – a city charter amendment that would require certain types of long-term leases of city parkland to require a popular vote. The city charter already requires that the sale of parkland be voted on in a popular referendum. However, the council decided at its Aug. 9, 2012 meeting not to place that charter amendment on the ballot this November.

The Fuller Road site is city parkland. So for that specific site, the council’s Oct. 15, 2012 resolution – if approved – would have essentially the same effect as the charter amendment.

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  1. By Junior
    October 13, 2012 at 4:49 pm | permalink

    Vivienne should be appointed.

  2. October 15, 2012 at 9:39 am | permalink

    I don’t agree that “the council’s Oct. 15, 2012 resolution – if approved – would have essentially the same effect as the charter amendment.” This provision only refers to construction of the project itself. It does not address the basic question of how parkland is reassigned to other uses, and in fact makes no reference to the point that city parkland is being used for the project.

    The voters thus will be asked to consider a project on which millions of city dollars have already been spent. (Let’s not forget the infamous sewer work.) This puts a heavy presumption on passage, regardless of the park issue.

    What should have happened is that a full discussion and perhaps a vote on the park issue should have occurred before the project progressed beyond the initial planning stage. That’s assuming that we are serious about protecting our parks.