Last week, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje announced that the University would pay for its employees’ use of a proposed commuter train between Ann Arbor and the city of Howell. Given that almost 4,000 University employees would benefit from this transportation line, the University’s offer is quite significant for the future of the rail line, especially because it comes at a time when there is also hype about building an underground parking structure in downtown Ann Arbor. While both proposals are intended to enhance transportation into the city for people who work here, the economic and environmental benefits of the proposed rail line make it the obvious favorite.
The sheer cost of constructing a new parking structure in the city should be enough to seriously reconsider it. Train service for commuters is much more cost-effective because it would use existing tracks. In addition, the cost of a parking pass for University employees in Ann Arbor can be as much as $1,265 per year. Even if employees had to dig into their own pockets to pay for the commuter, the cost would only be $560 a year.
But besides being economical for University employees, rail service into the city is beneficial because it encourages the practice of using public transportation – reducing congestion on overtaxed expressways, prolonging the life of crumbling roads and, of course, cutting greenhouse emissions. Building a parking structure, on the other hand, would be added motivation to drive into the city, creating only more need for parking and perpetuating traffic congestion.
The University’s offer to offset the price of the commuter rail will guarantee a baseline ridership – who would pass up a convenient and free ride that allows you to skip the gridlock on US-23? This ridership should allow the nascent line to survive while it gradually attracts the riders of choice who are necessary for any public transportation system to work.
This use of this rail would also be especially effective in demonstrating that public transportation can work in the Detroit area, which remains the only large metropolitan area in the nation without viable public transit. Perhaps if this line sets a good example, state and local officials will be more willing to look into the much-needed Detroit-Ann Arbor rail line, finally enabling University students to drop in to the big city that’s a lot closer than they think. A line to Detroit would open up the University community’s options for entertainment and social activities, as well as boost Detroit’s economy.
Clearly the incentives to create and use the commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Howell are considerable. The added cost of construction and the inconveniences of yet another parking structure in the city – construction noise and road detours, to name a few – show that this option is not advantageous for the University or Ann Arbor. Of the two proposals to solving the parking and commuting problems for city workers, only mass transit like the north-south rail line, will encourage University employees and others to take advantage of economic and environmentally sound ways of traveling around the state.