Light rail plans to move forward after University, city announcement

Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 5:22pm

Multiple Ann Arbor institutions are banding together to bring a monorail to the city.

Officials from the city of Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and the Downtown Development Authority gathered at the Michigan Union Wednesday for a press conference on the Ann Arbor Connector, a project that has not announced any new developments since 2013.

The project is envisioned as a light rail transit system that will connect students and residents to busy city centers. Phase one of the Connector is slated to run through downtown, Central Campus, North Campus and the Medical Center, while phase two would focus on connecting the southern areas of Ann Arbor to the Ross Athletic Campus and Briarwood area.

The project will cost approximately $500 million to $700 million, and add an additional 8 percent increase in annual operating costs system-wide — to both the Ann Arbor area transit system and the University. The exact breakdown of funding and sources has not yet been determined. However, similar projects in the past have seen a combination of federal, state and University funding along with public and private partnerships.

Currently, the University transportation system and the AAATA serve over 30,000 daily passengers. Compared to a standard bus, the Connector is estimated to run about 43 percent faster and increase capacity by approximately 52 percent.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Steve Dolen, University executive director of parking and transportation services, highlighted the impact of forecasted growth in ridership in the community. The current high levels of demand means the established transportation is already operating at full capacity, he said.

“Our current systems are stressed to meet that demand efficiently, reliably and conveniently,” Dolen said. “This advanced system will not only help us with today’s capacity issues, but it also sets us up for the future.”

Officials also stressed several other expected benefits of the proposal, saying riders can expect greater travel time reliability because the Connector will not be at the mercy of traffic, instead benefiting from a dedicated lane. Additionally, the project hopes to use 100 percent alternative and renewable energy, largely focusing on local sources of hydroelectric power.

The project is still in the early planning stages, and the implementation process could take anywhere from six to 12 years according to a press release. Planners described the project as being in a phase of exploring alternative transportation strategies. Once the project clears that phase and is approved, it will then begin with a 24-month environmental review and preliminary engineering phase, followed by the final design stage. The construction and testing will take about an additional 24 to 36 months.

According to Dolen, the University is slated to play a large role in the implementation and funding of the environmental review phase. The current phase is being led by the AAATA.

“The intention is that the University will lead the next phase of the project, but it’s still the same collaborative effort that we’ve had going forward,” he said.

In 2011, the University and the city collaborated with AAATA and the AADA to fund a study investigating the feasibility of such a transit system. Eli Cooper, city transportation program manager, said Wednesday that the study explored various available technologies, travel patterns and community growth, but it did not delve into the more logistical details, such as location or technology, which is what planners are currently exploring.

He said once the city realized the system was a feasible concept, it was no longer just a vision. The Ride then took over for the alternative analysis stage because a transportation agency was best suited to lead this phase.

"This is nearing the level of the initial vision statement in the context of there is and should be a level of excitement and enthusiasm that this vision is becoming more real on a day-to-day basis,” Cooper said. “This is a moment in time to reflect on advancing through the alternatives analysis and having a recommendation to carry and allow us to move forward.”

Alternatives analysis study are considered best practice by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Matt Carpenter, CEO of The Ride, said the study is the entryway for federal funding and requires the evaluation of the technical merits associated with different routes. In this case, the light rail option has been deemed the most cost effective.

“The alternatives analysis confirms the win-win opportunity for a study like this to create an asset that can be used by everyone and anyone in the community,” Carpenter said. “That helps us accommodate the growing interest in this growing community and provides a faster, more reliable and more comfortable means of travel.”

Dolen noted that because Connector ridership numbers are largely driven by University activity related to health care, employment, academics, research and visitors, the project should be well poised to compete for federal funds.

Before the lengthy implementation process can begin, the proposal must be approved. In the meantime, the long-term project is seeking public support and opinions.

On March 24, a public engagement event will take place at the Ann Arbor District Library or Detroit Public Library Main Branch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and another from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Traverwood Branch.

University planner Sue Gott said the goal is to gather feedback and ideas from the public about some of the more specific details associated with the plan.

“Part of what we hope the community input will help contribute both in terms of the refinement of the alignment and also the design of the product that’s used,” Gott said. “It’s important that we remain open-minded about the possibilities so that as we continue to move forward, we’re very inclusive of good ideas, of the most advanced technology.”