Protect A2 Parks, an environmental advocacy group, claims emails recently obtained from the Federal Railroad Administration through the Freedom of Information Act reveal concerns over the cost of the ongoing Ann Arbor Amtrak station project.
Protect A2 Parks has been monitoring plans for the delayed Ann Arbor Amtrak station since early 2010. The group opposes the use of Fuller Park, the city’s preferred site for the new train station — they disagree with the use of park land for the new Amtrak station. In October 2017, Members of Protect A2 Parks even gathered in Fuller Park to protest the new train station. They asserted their support for train stations as well as parks, but questioned why the Amtrak station could not be built on the current Depot Street location, where the train station has been located since its opening in 1983.
In fact, Depot Street was considered for the new station, but Fuller Park was revealed as the city’s preferred location in September 2017 after a preliminary cost estimate of $81 million came out lower than the $91 million predicted cost for building at the Depot Street location.
In January, Protect A2 Parks member Rita Mitchell filed a FOIA request on behalf of the group for email communications between Eli Cooper, transportation manager for the city of Ann Arbor, and FRA staff. From the FOIA request, Protect A2 Parks allegedly obtained an email sent to Cooper from FRA staff member Melissa Hatcher which outlines the concerns FRA has with the project.
“Additionally, FRA expresses the general concern on the total cost shown in the preliminary cost estimate,” Hatcher wrote in the email. “The preliminary cost estimate for the Ann Arbor multimodal stations is an order of magnitude higher than other new intercity passenger rail and multimodal stations for which MDOT was awarded funding to construct by FRA.”
Hatcher criticized the costs associated with building the station at Fuller Park.
“The total cost is high because the City’s preferred location for the station is constrained and the City is proposing a substantial amount of parking,” Hatcher wrote.
Mitchell said it is problematic if the FRA also has concerns about the location and the cost. According to Mitchell, the FOIA did not contain information about the cost of the project. However, she said emails from FRA staff say the amount requested by Ann Arbor for a new train station may consume an extraordinary amount of federal funds.
“You can see the staff person, who has followed this for a long time, is saying ‘you (Ann Arbor) are asking for so much money, you might deplete the funds that are needed for the whole rail system,’” Mitchell said. “That is really a big deal.”
The preliminary cost estimate for building on the Fuller Park site was revealed to be $5 million short of what the actual cost would be. Mitchell revealed the error in October 2017, which Cooper confirmed, making the cost estimate closer to $86 million. The city stated the $5 million miscalculation was due to “an arithmetic error.”
Cooper maintained the city is still working on a FRA compliant environmental assessment. Based on a draft preliminary engineering report from 2017, the Fuller Park site emerged as the most cost efficient option. And while Fuller Park is the city’s preferred location, Cooper said Ann Arbor is still in the process of reviewing sites. The city has narrowed down the locations to two potential sites, Depot Street and Fuller Park, and is aiming to complete the environmental assessment and preliminary engineering report this year.
Cooper explained the current train station at Depot Street, which was constructed in the 1970s, is not large enough to accommodate the expected amount of passenger traffic predicted for a new Amtrak station.
“Unfortunately, the planning around the existing station site, conducted in the 1970s, was not fulfilled resulting in a constrained site that can neither address all of today’s passenger rail needs nor be expanded to accommodate planned growth in rail passenger traffic in the future,” Cooper said.
However, Mitchell said Protect A2 Parks still sees Depot Street as a more logical alternative.
“(Fuller Park) is actually park land, and when you use park land and convert it to something else, then there is a requirement to have an environmental assessment,” Mitchell said. “The outcome of it is there has to be a determination that there is no ‘prudent and feasible alternative’ to the location that has been identified.”
Cooper said there are few location options for a new train station because of the project’s size and the location’s required accessibility, but said the city is continuing to address concerns about the project.
“The concerns have been and will continue to be addressed throughout the planning process,” Cooper said. “There are few site alternatives of the size necessary to accommodate and locate an intermodal station in Ann Arbor along the Wolverine Line.”
If the Fuller Park site is chosen, the new train station would be built on the parking lot and the immediate surrounding lands. Cooper said the city is working to select the best possible option to ensure the final project only has “minimal impact” on parklands.
Mayor Christopher Taylor has been a long-time proponent of building the new train station at Fuller Park. In his 2016 year-in-review letter, Taylor explained his support for the location.
“I have previously stated my belief that the Fuller Road location would likely work best,” Taylor wrote. “It has more space for necessary parking, better access for the mass transit that will be necessary to move commuters from the station to other areas of the city, and it is right next to the highest employment center and most visited location in the County, the UM Health System.”
“If it is on the Fuller Park site, then the city is committed to designing and developing a project that has the smallest possible impact, if any, on the park land and no direct impact on recreational features,” Cooper said.
For Mitchell and other members of Protect A2 Parks, there are still concerns about building a large structure, such as a train station, on park land. According to Mitchell, the group feels their concerns have fallen on deaf ears and they wish there was greater communication between the city of Ann Arbor and residents regarding the project.
“I just don’t feel like the project team has listened to our group that much,” Mitchell said. “I would’ve liked them to take our opinion and act on that, to keep it and make improvements on the Depot Street area. I really think that’s a better service to the citizens of Ann Arbor and that the University can get good value out of train service as well in the current Depot Street station.”