Residents question University's obligation in rail funding

Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 10:06pm

Ann Arbor resident Tim Rexin speaks with Hank Kelley, an AECOM transportation planner, about handicap accessibility concerns at an information session on plans for a light rail train system in Ann Arbor at the Ann Arbor District Library on Thursday .

Ann Arbor resident Tim Rexin speaks with Hank Kelley, an AECOM transportation planner, about handicap accessibility concerns at an information session on plans for a light rail train system in Ann Arbor at the Ann Arbor District Library on Thursday . Buy this photo
Amanda Allen/Daily

 

At an open house held to discuss the proposed plan for the Ann Arbor Connector Thursday night, local residents raised concerns about the University of Michigan’s financial role in the joint project and how much city residents stand to benefit.

The proposed Connector would either take the form of a light rail, a type of public transport similar to a tramway, or a high-capacity bus service. The rail would link the southern end of Ann Arbor from Briarwood Mall, through the University's Central, Medical and North Campuses, to the city’s northern extreme at US-23 and Plymouth Road.

Thursday night's meeting was the second held regarding the connector — another was held earlyier in the day. During both, city and University officials met with community members and students to discuss the project.

According to representatives of AECOM, the consulting firm hired to manage the project, the preliminary study on the light rail is complete, and public input will be collected before the next phase will proceed. The entire process of design finalization, procurement and construction is estimated to take between six and 12 years.

Jeremy Winsor, one of the AECOM representatives, described the Briarwood Mall-Plymouth Road corridor as the busiest transportation corridor in the entire state of Michigan — with 28 percent of the city’s residents and 51 percent of the city’s jobs within walking distance of the proposed path — and the place where most of the city’s future growth would take place.

He also noted that current bus traffic between downtown Ann Arbor and North Campus — at one bus every 90 seconds per stop and 50,000 daily trips — has exhausted existing road capacity.

Winsor said the project is expected to reduce travel times along the corridor by 43 percent and increase rider capacity by 52 percent, at an estimated cost of $500 to $700 million for construction and an 8 percent increase in annual transportation operations expenditures by the city and University.

“If you were to go online to the (Federal Transportation Administration) and look at all the new projects they have around the country in major metropolitan areas, this project, for the amount of ridership, ends up looking like a bargain,” Winsor said, adding that a combination of state and federal grants would also likely pay a large portion of the cost.

However, many of the residents in attendance expressed concerns about whether the University would be the primary beneficiary of the connector at the expense of city taxpayers.

Ann Arbor resident Vince Caruso pointed out the majority of traffic along the proposed connector route is University students, saying the University should therefore pay a larger share of the costs, drawing nods of approval from the crowd.

“This is really a U of M corridor; this is not an Ann Arbor corridor … and that’s fine,” Caruso said. “Maybe they should be asked to step up and provide a lot more funding than they previously stated they would.”

Jim Kosteva, community relations director for the University, acknowledged residents’ concerns. In an interview, he said the University intends to pay for 75 percent ofthe next phase of environmental reviews, and to continue to financially contribute in subsequent phases. However, he said the exact amount the University would contribute for the entire project is still to be determined.

“It’s unquestionable that University ridership will be a primary beneficiary of this project,” Kosteva said. “We’ve paid for that system today, and we’re prepared to pay a proportional cost for any future system.”

Caruso — who said he has many family members who work or study at the University — added after the meeting that most of the proposed stops along the connector route are only at University locations, further limiting how much it could benefit city residents.

“(The connector) really needs to consider being general transit, and not just U of M transit,” Caurso said.