The Hatcher Graduate Library played host Monday night to the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study’s transit forum with city planners, local residents and representatives gathering to hear status updates on the current projects.

Guests were greeted with food, drinks and 18 different representatives from The Connector high-capacity transit project, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and Clean Energy Coalition all gathered together for the first forum of its kind to inform the public on the county’s current transit projects and answer questions.

WATS Director Ryan Buck said it’s hard for area residents to attend each individual meeting for various initiatives and the forum was a good opportunity to inform the public. Buck said the projects have various timelines and roadblocks to overcome but that funding is an issue across most initiatives.

“Funding is the most critical issue facing transportation planners and transportation infrastructure right now,” Buck said. “It’s critically and chronically underfunded.”

Project leaders shared optimism for their plans, the most notable being the commuter and high-speed rail projects as well as The Ride’s urban core focus.

Alex Bourgeau, an intermodal transportation coordinator at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said the forum was a great opportunity to disentangle the rail projects going on in southeast Michigan. There are currently three major projects: the high-speed rail program, the MITrain Southeast Michigan Commuter Rail Service, and the Washtenaw and Livingston Line, commonly referred to as WALLY.

The MITrain cars and track, which includes the WALLY line, are complete and should start running special trains next year between Ann Arbor and Detroit for major events, such as Detroit Tiger’s games or the Ann Arbor Art Fair, Bourgeau said. The line is roughly two to three years away from regular service, he said.

Meanwhile, Bourgeau said the high-speed rail line should reach speeds of 110 miles per hour between Detroit and Chicago along some portions of the track and should be finalized by 2017. He said in addition to being faster, the line should help clear up congestion in high-traffic areas such as outside Chicago where freight, commercial and other rail all converge.

“Really, the two services in this corridor could complement each other,” Bourgeau said.

Ann Arbor resident Keith LaSalle was excited about the prospect of the new rail services. However, he stressed having a concrete plan before he could fully support the projects.

“I love the concept — if done properly and if the planners are fiscally responsible in making it happen,” LaSalle said.

Expanding bus services

The expansion of AAATA bus services, also known as TheRide, was another point of interest for many at the forum, with Michael Benham, TheRide’s special assistant for strategic planning, sharing a plan that would expand service by 44 percent. Benham said the much needed improvements will add routes and increase service and frequency.

“We’ve got people walking down Washtenaw Avenue after 11 (p.m.) because they can’t catch a bus,” Benham said. “We’ve got people in (Ypsilanti) who can’t get to the grocery store on a Sunday or Saturday, so the needs there are critical.”

At the time, Benham said the changes would go much smoother if the Ann Arbor City Council approved adding Ypsilanti Township into the AAATA, which represents multiple municipalities. Tuesday evening, the council did approve the township’s membership. Now, a millage is needed to approve the plan.

State Rep. Gretchen Driskell (D–Saline), who attended the forum, said she is concerned about the additional funding need for the project, but supports an increased emphasis on public transportation.

“The state has historically been more oriented towards road construction versus alternative modes of transportation, transit, non-motorized, like biking,” Driskell said. “There is definitely movement recognizing the importance of transit.”

Other booths at the forum, such as the Clean Energy Coalition’s Bike Share program and the Program to Educate All Cyclists, focused on promoting bike riding in Ann Arbor, and booths from the Ann Arbor Project Management Services Unit and Washtenaw County Road Commission shared results from recent projects.

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