Ann Arbor Rail to Get Funding, Popular Vote

A study that’s required as part of Ann Arbor’s approach to building a new train station will move forward with a funding resolution passed by the city council at its Oct. 15, 2012 meeting. The same resolution also includes a clause stating that the construction of a new train station would be put to a popular referendum before proceeding.

The budget amendment, which passed with exactly the eight votes it needed on the 11-member council, allocated $550,000 in new matching funds for a federal grant. The grant had been awarded through the Federal Railroad Administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program. Dissenting on the vote were Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5). Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) was absent.

The Ann Arbor city council had previously voted 9-2 to accept the federal money 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 on up to $2.8 million in federal funds.

But the FRA subsequently 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. The lower amount of $550,000 is based on 20% of a now lower-estimated cost for the study, which had originally been estimated to cost $3.5 million.

The resolution approved by the council on Oct. 15 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.

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.

As a result of the FRA determination, none of that previously expended money can be counted as the local match on the federal grant.

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.

A resolved clause in the Oct. 15 resolution stipulates that the council will submit the construction of a new rail station as a ballot question to Ann Arbor voters: “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 political strategy of offering a vote to reduce opposition to the project has resulted in previously withheld support from the Ecology Center. In an email sent on Oct. 15 to all members of the city council, executive director Mike Garfield wrote about the possible plan for a rail station to be located at the Fuller Road site: “Before tonight … we were unable to support the plan,” he wrote, citing the change in the long-term use of city parkland. “It may be legal to build a parking structure or multimodal station on city parkland, but it was not what voters thought they were approving when they voted – overwhelmingly, each time – for parkland acquisition millages. If the City wants to build a nonpark facility, like a train station or multimodal station, no matter how great the public benefits, then the City owes it to voters to seek their approval first.”

Garfield’s email concludes: “Tonight’s resolution ensures that the City will maintain its commitment to parks, and potentially removes the conflict between two of our community’s great key values. We urge you to support the resolution.” [.pdf of Ecology Center email text]

At the council’s Oct. 15, mayor John Hieftje used Garfield’s letter as a key element in his argument for the resolution.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]