Schlissel, city envision monorail to unite North and Central campuses

Wednesday, February 10, 2016 - 5:47pm

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Tuesday, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel reintroduced the idea of creating a rapid transit system between Central and North Campuses, a project that has essentially been dormant since 2013.

“The city would probably contribute a modest amount, but not an amount that changes a $60 million project into something we don’t know how to do right now," Schlissel said during a fireside chat.

In 2010, under then-President Mary Sue Coleman, the University of Michigan began discussing plans with the city of Ann Arbor to build a new transportation system that would effectively unify the University's entire Ann Arbor campus, stretching as far east as the East Medical Campus on Plymouth Road and as far south as Wolverine Towers near Briarwood Mall.

In 2011, the University and the city collaborated with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to fund a study investigating the feasibility of such a rapid transit system. The study considered light rail, bus rapid transit, monorail and streetcar as potential modes of transportation, finding that the current and projected levels of ridership in the area justified high-capacity service in the "high demand core" encompassing Central and North Campuses, as well as "end-to-end connection" from the Briarwood Mall area to the East Medical Campus.

There were a series of public meetings in 2013 to discuss the future of the so-called Connector program, but the program hasn't received any public attention since.

"That was the first I'd heard that idea surface in the last few years," Ann Arbor City Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said in an interview with The Michigan Daily on Wednesday.

However, Briere said she understood the demand for a rapid transit system, though.

"The biggest, most congested area of University transportation is between Central Campus and North Campus. A bus is en route between those two destinations several times a minute," she said.

Engineering freshman Hossein Abdollahi, a resident of Bates Housing, wrote in an interview that he knows this challenge very well.

"Living on North Campus was particularly difficult with the current transit system as most of my classes had nothing to do with engineering and were located on Central Campus,” Abdollahi wrote in an e-mail. “The commute to Central was awful because everyone would be trying to get to the same place and so buses would be packed.”

Schlissel said at his fireside talk that for North Campus to expand as he hoped, improvements in transportation would be necessary.

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor expressed similar sentiments in an interview Wednesday.

"Traffic and congestion are important quality of life issues for everyone in Ann Arbor and the University community, and outside the University community,” Taylor said. “We all expect the University to continue to grow and expand and improve its educational and research and medical offerings, to integrate campuses and to provide the free and easy flow of persons from, broadly speaking, North Campus to Central to South Campus."

No statement has been issued by the University on how the funds for this project would be raised. Taylor noted if federal funds were acquired, the University would be the recipient, not the city. 

Abdollahi wrote that he thought a tuition hike is a consideration he would make.

"I'd be willing to pay extra depending on how reasonable the amount he's asking for is,” Abdollahi said. “However, I would first like to make sure that there is no other way to raise the funds.”

In contrast, Engineering senior Anya LaRoche said she doesn't think the time the transit system would save would be worth the cost.

"I think that a lot of people are already very financially strained with what they already have to pay," LaRoche said.

Schlissel also discussed the monorail with Central Student Government in remarks at their meeting Tuesday.

In an email interview with The Michigan Daily on Wednesday, CSG President Cooper Charlton wrote that he has been trying to work on connecting North and Central campus throughout his tenure.

"CSG has been working closely with Busing to adjust current bus routes and cater to North Campus Student's Gameday transportation needs since the Fall semester," he wrote. "We have engaged in the long term plan conversation, focusing on innovative and clean energy transportation. CSG understands the long-term nature of this plan, however is committed to maintaining a strong voice both in the present, and in the distant future."

Details have not yet been released on the timeline for the project or its estimated completion date.

Public Affairs was not able to provide any additional information regarding the timeline.

"We don't have an estimated start date. This is nebulous and still in the planning stages. It's not even in the proposal stage," Briere said. "The last meeting I attended, we still didn't have any sense of what would be created to service the transportation model."

That meeting was in 2013. Eli Cooper, transportation program manager for the City of Ann Arbor, will meet with members of City Council to provide them with updates about the Connector project for the first time in years on Friday, according to Briere.