From the Daily: Transit means trains

Published November 17, 2006

In light of the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments's study of proposed rapid transit systems between the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area and Detroit, students who support the revitalization of the rails will have to be more vocal than ever - or be forced to revisit their elementary-school bus-riding days.

The SEMCOG Ann Arbor-Downtown Detroit transit study released last Tuesday was designed to estimate ridership and costs for five proposed rapid transit options - a light rail system, two rapid bus transit plans and two commuter rail plans. The results of the study essentially ruled out a light rail line, though a rapid bus system is still under consideration. Southeast Michigan needs more substantial mass transit than buses can provide, however. Adding passenger routes to existing rail lines is a better approach.
The SEMCOG study determined that light rail was not a viable option for the Ann Arbor-Detroit route. This announcement struck a death blow to a transportation option that has proved fundamental in the transformation of struggling metropolises around the country. Instead, SEMCOG's study showed that a rapid transit bus system or a commuter rail line erected on existing freight rail would be the most feasible options for Ann Arbor to Detroit mass transit.
Both options elicited groans - and a counter-study of SEMCOG's research methods by commuter-rail advocacy groups, including Detroit's Transportation Riders United. TRU members argued that the SEMCOG study factored in only the most expensive options when calculating the projected capital, operation and labor costs for the commuter and light rail systems.
In addition to high costs, SEMCOG predicted an extremely modest ridership for the proposed rapid transit system. However, SEMCOG's own report admitted that it had no way to accurately predict the transit market without providing starter rail services as a way to test the market - a reasonable approach.
As the TRU website points out, Detroit is the only major U.S. city without a rapid transit system. A fleet of "premium buses" speeding across - or bogging down - the highways between Ann Arbor and Detroit is a terrible way to implement such a system. The proposed bus plan does not factor in the costs of constructing a special bus lane along the I-94 corridor and assumes that layering on the "premium" features - nice buses and fancy stations - will elicit a greater rider response than the average rail line. But however inexpensive a rapid bus fleet might appear to be, the riders who are pushing for rapid transit in Detroit demand real mass transit. And that means a commuter rail.
SEMCOG's other option - to use existing rail lines as the starting rail for a commuter system, while renting additional lines from Amtrak - is a far better one. SEMCOG should take TRU's suggestions seriously and work on developing feeder systems - buses and especially light rail - that have worked in cities such as Portland. Light rail may not be a viable option for commuters along the southeast corridor, but streetcars have been missing from heart of Detroit since 1956. It is time to bring them - and the era of sustainable commuter transportation - back to Michigan.