Rail line waits for funding

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 18, 2007

A commuter rail line from Howell to Ann Arbor is still waiting for a $1 million federal grant that would help with startup costs.

Chris Herring
The only passenger train to Ann Arbor is the Amtrak, which runs to Detroit and Chicago. (PETER SCHOTTENFELS/Daily)

The line would stop in Howell, on Chilson Road near Brighton, Whitmore Lake, Hamburg and at Plymouth Road in Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje is confident that the line will be up and running by 2009, his target completion date for the project.

In the meantime, other organizations like the state of Michigan, the Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Michigan are contributing to the project.

The project has received $1.7 million in funding from the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Diane Brown, parking and transportation services spokeswoman, said the University is committed to pay for tickets for every staff member who wants to ride the train to work. The University would pay 100 percent of the total cost of tickets for the first year of the railroad's operation, 75 percent the second year and 50 percent the third year. The University hasn't committed to paying anything after the third year. Ticket prices have not been set.

"The University has been a big player," Hieftje said.

Brown said that out of 14,400 University employees with zip codes listed along the US 23 corridor who responded to a survey conducted in the winter, more than 1,200 participants said they would be interested in riding the train to work - some as many as five days a week.

Brown said the University's contribution to the new rail line was comparable to its practice of subsidizing van pools for University employees. Director of Community Relations Jim Kosteva compared the rail line to the University's MRide bus program, which allows free passage on city busses with a University ID.

"(The railways would be) another potential method for faculty, students and staff to gain access to the University without having to rely on individual automobiles," he said.

These efforts are part of a larger University and city push to reduce fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions.

"One of the reasons I want the train is because it will reduce greenhouse gasses," Hieftje said.

Brown said the train is an opportunity to reduce the number of cars coming to campus as well as overall congestion and energy usage.

"Parking those vehicles is a challenge for us and we'd like to see land not going to more parking structures," she said.

Brown said the rail effort is supported in large part by Livingston County residents. Livingston County - located just north of Ann Arbor's Washtenaw County - is home to about 11,000 people who commute to Ann Arbor.

"They got a real kick in the pants when they found out this summer that there would be so much more road work on US 23," she said.

Brown said Livingston County residents had hoped that the federal Department of Transportation would add lanes to US 23, but that never happened.

"Congestion still reigns, morning and night, on US 23," Brown said.

Hieftje said the train would be one way to relieve the congestion.

"I don't want to see more lanes on 23," Hieftje said. "I think that leads to more sprawl and more pollution."

Washtenaw and Livingston Counties are in the process of establishing a Commuter Rail Authority Board that would bring together leaders from both counties to head the operation. The Commuter Authority would then be in charge of maintaining a contract with Great Lakes Central Railroad, the company that owns the majority of the tracks the train would run on. The tracks are currently used to transport freight.

Mike Bagwell, the company's president, was enthusiastic about the new railroad. He said he would like his company to be in charge of operations and track maintenance, providing the train cars and any other rail service that would be needed.

Bagwell said committees are being formed to map out details of the project like marketing, financing, scheduling and the construction of platforms at train stops.

Construction of platforms would take about 90 days once the project receives the necessary funding, Bagwell said.

The scheduling committee is considering running an express train that would travel directly from one end of the line to the other in addition to a train that would stop at each station. The express train is projected to take 20 minutes each way - about 45 minutes less than the trip would take at rush hour on US 23.