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AATA mulls bigger buses, monorail in transit plans

BY DYLAN CINTI AND ELYANA TWIGGS
Daily Staff Reporters
Published December 7, 2010

The Ann Arbor Transit Authority is currently working with University and city officials on two long-term projects to enhance transit on a local and county level.

The first project, the Ann Arbor Connector Feasibility Study, seeks to pinpoint advanced transit options that would be installed in the city, like trains or larger buses. The second project is the AATA’s countywide transit master plan, which is aimed at improving and expanding the city’s busing system. Both plans are in the development stage and aim for both short-term and long-term improvements, according to city transportation officials.

New modes of city transit

An electric-powered train system could lie in Ann Arbor’s future — or so city officials hope.

The city-sponsored Ann Arbor Connector Feasibility Study was designed to identify alternative modes of transportation that could improve transit citywide. Recently submitted in a draft form to the AATA, the study endorses three modes of transportation: an enhanced busing system, a light rail transit system and an elevated train system, which would include a monorail.

URS Corporation, an engineering and technical services organization based in California, performed the study. The aim of the study was to identify the transit options that would best accommodate Ann Arbor’s transportation needs, according to Richard Nau, URS vice president for transit and railroad business.

Chief among these needs, according to Nau, is a more efficient mode of transit between the University’s North and Central Campuses.

“One of the things that’s driving the study is improving the connection between the North Campus and the Central Campus,” Nau said.

According to Jim Kosteva, the University’s director of community relations, students, faculty and staff make more than 20,000 trips between the two campuses daily. For this reason, Nau said, the study specifically sought to identify more reliable and faster modes of transit between the campuses.

In a recent interview, Kosteva said the University is supporting the study because of its focus on improving transit between the two campuses.

“It’s well known that we have a large movement of passengers from North Campus to Central Campus,” Kosteva said. “We want to analyze whether or not there may be other means of transit that can make those trips more efficient.”

The current draft of the study proposes three modes of transit that Nau called “the most promising types of mass transit” for Ann Arbor.

The first is an enhanced busing system called Bus Rapid Transit, which would involve the creation of a separate line of buses that would be both faster and larger than existing AATA buses.

These buses would be able to seat between 55 and 105 people, for a total daily ridership of roughly 10,000, according to a pamphlet released by the Ann Arbor Connector Feasibility Study.

The second option is a light rail transit system, which would feature a two- to three-car train powered by electric overhead wires, according to the pamphlet.

Nau said the light rail transit system would be speedy and spacious, with the ability to shuttle large numbers of people between the campuses in a timely manner. According to the pamphlet, a light rail transit system could accommodate up to 40,000 people daily.

The final option is a form of elevated transit, a totally automated train system that would feature trains running back and forth on a fixed headway.

According to Nau, “those systems would have to be developed to provide the level of capacity that’s necessary to move people between the campuses.”

The AATA, as well as officials from the city, the University and the Downtown Development Agency, are currently reviewing the draft of the study. Nau said he plans to meet with these groups and hear their feedback before submitting a final report to the transportation authority.

A countywide transit vision

The AATA is also working on a long-term plan to improve its regular busing service.

The AATA’s countywide transit vision is a 30-year plan to revamp its busing system, The Ride, which currently operates in both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

Officials developed the countywide transit vision as a means of addressing a variety of issues including a lack of speedy routes to vital destinations, frequent congestion, increases in mobility needs for aging riders and a lack of connectivity between counties, according to Michael Benham, a strategic planner for The Ride.

The countywide transit vision is designed to address these needs by proposing changes to busing like adding local circulators and door-to-door service, connecting counties using coach and express buses and utilizing a park-and-ride option for those who own vehicles, according to a Nov. 18 AATA status report.

The vision also aims to increase the use of bus lanes and install a revamped commuter rail. Finally, the transit vision focuses on making transit centers attractive and appealing for riders.

Eli Cooper, Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager, said he believes the Transit Master Plan will pave the way for important new developments in Washtenaw County.

“The AATA … is reaching out in a significant way and is getting excellent input from the advisory committee as well as the public,” Cooper said. “They have a comprehensive and thorough outreach process.”

The next step of planning is to determine whether the transit plan’s objectives are aligned with the community’s needs, Cooper said. This mainly involves accommodating the markets that aren’t exposed to the “high level” of transit service that is operating around Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, he said.

The Transit Master Plan presented by AATA, Cooper said, will allow Ann Arbor to “continue to grow and prosper as a regional job center without strangling the community’s transportation arteries with individual commuters and cars on our streets looking for parking spaces on valuable land.”