Tag Archives: rail

Requiem for Woodward rail


A sample of early reactions:

Early reaction

I can understand Megan Owens’ reaction, since the ‘six years of work’ she refers to are, in large part, hers.  And I certainly won’t dispute her characterization of the mayor as  ‘a moron,’ since he’s proven it over and over again more or less since his first day in office (but that’s a topic for another post).

But as readers of this blog may recall, I’m not terribly surprised by this news given that Detroit as an independent political and fiscal entity will likely not exist in its current form within six months.  Nor does it necessarily entail a worse long-term outcome for metro Detroit’s transit riders, especially the vast majority that do not live or work along Woodward south of 8 Mile.  The governor has made it clear that his vision for a new regional transit system centers on bus rapid transit, and that vision, along with the loss of control over its own finances the city will shortly face, was the controlling factor here.

If light rail does eventually come to Michigan, it will makes its debut in one of three places:  1) Ann Arbor (between UM’s North & Central Campuses), 2) the Woodward corridor in southeast Oakland County, or 3) Grand Rapids.


No silver bullet: Managing expectations for light rail on Woodward

As I’ve acknowledged before, I succumb pretty easily to my own pessimism when it comes to mass transit projects in southeast Michigan.  So I haven’t been hanging my hat on the Woodward Avenue light rail line.

First, there’s the typical delay associated with rail plans in Michigan.  SEMCOG’s Carmine Palumbo blogged back in February,

I am worried that the unrealistic expectations that some heap on transit can have more of a negative than a positive impact. What do I mean? Well for example if groups are spreading the word that construction will begin later this year and the earliest it can begin is mid 2012, then it looks like the project is behind schedule. “Behind schedule” can be code for some to mean more expensive and other unforeseen problems.

Sure enough, the Metro Times reported last month that the opening of the line has been postponed from 2013 to 2015 (as it had “ been determined that the project should be constructed in a single phase instead of the two that had been planned”). 

Furthermore, M1 Rail’s funders, who are footing the bill for the lower segment of the line, are causing trouble with their demand that it run curb-side instead of down the center – an idea that makes no sense, as Yonah Freemark explains in a recent post for the Transport Politic.

And DDOT is causing trouble with their demand that the line loop around to the Rosa Parks Transit Center on Cass. Freemark laments, “The fact that this route would parallel the People Mover almost directly — eliminating its very limited raisons d’être — should be bothersome to anyone who is paying attention.”

Even the financing is a mess.  The Free Press’ Jeff Gerritt spoke to the frustration of rail supporters in a column this week:

Meeting with the Free Press editorial board in mid-April, the mayor told me he needs investors to commit within 30 days. Thirty days have passed and nothing definitive has happened. A spokesperson for the M-1 Rail leadership team declined to comment through an e-mail on Friday, other than to say “they are not comfortable commenting on something the mayor said in a meeting they were not present at.”

Here’s an even bigger problem: Detroit’s application for federal assistance must explain how the city will pay to operate light rail. Fares will bring in maybe $3 million a year, but running the system will cost at least $10 million more. Facing a $150-million deficit, the city can’t do it alone. For now, there is no plan for a regional transit tax…

Worst of all, perhaps, is the nagging existential question of whether a huge, expensive investment in rail even makes sense in a Detroit that is slowly returning to nature.   Consider Ed Glaeser, who blasted the project in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal.   Now, I took major issue with Glaeser’s column on a number of counts.  He failed to note the Woodward line has plenty of support from local transit riders who want an alternative to the car; nor that a substantial section of the line is to be funded privately; nor that the line would actually extend up Woodward into the Oakland County suburbs, if it weren’t for the fact that L. Brooks Patterson is allergic to mass transit and that the City of Detroit is still paranoid about having to surrender any of its autonomy.  I’m increasingly disillusioned by Glaeser for this kind of laziness; he seems to have made up his mind a long time ago that because Detroit has lost its manufacturing base, it should no longer exist.  He consequently seems to oppose any investment in the city as a waste of resources.

Freemark addressed the same question Glaeser raised, but in a much more informed and sophisticated fashion:

In a city that lost 240,000 inhabitants between 2000 and 2010, the necessity of this project must be evaluated. The city is overbuilt … What is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new transit project in a place that has few issues with traffic congestion and where transit ridership has declined from 136,000 daily users in 1996 to 121,000 today…?

Those who doubt the importance of new infrastructure for Detroit have a point — there might be some value in simply redirecting the funds appropriated for the rail line towards poverty alleviation. Yet there is no clear mechanism by which to do that… So transportation improvements like the light rail line act as an indirect approach in an attempt to remediate this city’s ills…(S)everal areas along the Woodward rail line actually gained population between 2000 and 2010.

Regardless of what happens with the project, there are a number of fundamentals that will not change:

For one, Midtown will continue to thrive compared to the rest of the city.

For another, even if it is built, the Woodward line would only serve a tiny fraction of Detroit, let alone the metro region whose sprawl dwarfs it.  Bus service will continue to be the primary mode of transit for the majority of public transportation riders in the region, and the primary means of connecting workers to jobs, services, and shopping in the suburbs. As Gerritt writes:

 (T)he Federal Transit Administration won’t allow Detroit to weaken its already inadequate bus system to build a rail system — nor should it. More than 25% of Detroiters don’t have vehicles. Their needs come first. Besides, a rail line needs decent bus service to feed it.

Fortunately, Transportation Riders United has done an excellent job of continuing to press for bus service (and it paid off last week, when TRU managed to forestall cuts in state funds for public transit).

Detroit will remain a great city to bike in, with its flat geography and its empty streets.

And regardless of what happens to Woodward rail, the other major rail service improvement in the region – Detroit to Ann Arbor – will benefit from the recent influx of federal money for that route.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t think of Woodward rail as some kind of silver bullet.  Nor should we get too discouraged by the myriad roadblocks it faces.  We need to manage our expectations, while still dreaming big.

Transit & job sprawl: the Brookings “Missed Opportunity” report

I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but I am mightily intrigued by the Brookings Institution’s new report, Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America.

Findings of note from the first few pages:

  • Midwestern cities in general, save for Chicago, do pretty abysmally in terms of the share of population with access to transit.  A pleasant surprise:  metro Detroit appears to beat Indianapolis, Columbus and Madison on this measure (see map, page 7).
  • Also surprisingly, LA and San Jose do better than San Francisco & NYC with respect to the share of residents with transit access.
  • Metro Detroit actually does pretty well wrt typical transit frequency (page 11).

Some other Detroit-specific findings:

  • Metro Detroit’s job sprawl can only be described as horrific — it is below the average for the 100 largest metros by every measure.
  • The interactive map is particularly helpful.  It confirms transit coverage & access is best in Detroit and in the inner suburbs, especially the Woodward & Gratiot corridors.
  • Travel time is best in the centrally located near-west/northwest sides of Detroit.  Job access is atrocious except for Ferndale and certain chunks of Detroit (Palmer Woods, Palmer Park, & the area just across 8 Mile from Southfield).

Bloggers at the New Republic have posted several insightful analyses on this particular report.  Adie Tomer asks, “Do metro areas with well-established transit systems provide the best access to jobs?”

 (W)e were surprised to find uneven results in these places. Well-known rail systems in Chicago and Philadelphia trailed overall access levels in Los Angeles, the archetypal auto-oriented metropolis. Boston’s classic T system doesn’t match the access in mostly bus-reliant Seattle. What’s going on here?

One explanation is that many of the largest metros face serious job sprawl.

As Tomer notes in another TNR post, Brookings’ mapping tool is ground-breaking, and potentially useful for everyone from employers deciding where to locate an office, to social workers, to prospective realtors and prospective homeowners:

For the first time, people across the country have the opportunity to compare how transit serves their neighborhood versus others in and outside of their metro.  We have no doubt it will be useful in all sort of decision-making within the public and private sectors.  And that utility extends to households, too.  As Morgan Clendaniel from Fast Company noted, it’s a great tool for workers moving to a new residence.

In a third TNR post, Alan Berube observes that the data helps illustrate why “we shouldn’t celebrate transit for transit’s sake”:

Great, you’ve got a bus that goes through your neighborhood–where does it take you? How long does it take to get there? In particular, can it get you to your job … or the job that you want to have? That’s hardly the only reason people use transit, but it’s arguably the most important for the economic health of metro areas.

And this is where the letdown occurs. We found that even if you give the typical metropolitan commuter a very generous 90 minutes to ride transit in one direction, she could reach less than one-third of the total jobs in her metro area. If you’re a less-skilled service worker–the type of person who might rely on transit–you can reach an even lower share of metropolitan jobs in the industries most likely to employ you. Whoops, dropped call…

You can have lots of transit, and still fail to reach a lot of regional jobs within a reasonable amount of time (Chicago, we’re looking in your direction). Conversely, you can have modest, unsexy transit and deliver workers from their homes to a majority of regional job centers efficiently (hello, Tucson).

Transit simply must be part of a successful 21st century metropolitan economy… transit can and should do much more to promote access to jobs. In part, that means coordinating much more closely between transportation, housing, and economic development planning…

Bottom line–transit can’t be all flashy apps and high design (Take light rail to the ballpark! Live in a condo above a streetcar!). In an era of constrained fiscal and natural resources, we need to focus on how transit can best contribute to economic growth. Simply, it’s about jobs.

Berube’s warning is especially timely here in Detroit, in light of the Detroit Dept. of Transportation’s (DDOT) recently proposed service cuts.   As much as I love the idea of expanded rail service in Detroit, it is perplexing for the city to commit to operational costs for the new Woodward light rail system at the same time it is slashing its bus services (and for that matter, its entire budget, as Mayor Bing and City Council are advancing the most radical fiscal overhaul the city has ever seen.)  There’s plenty to debate about the Woodward rail project, but I’ll save that for another post.

Another recent report I’ve been meaning to get around to, but have not yet, is Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and Employment from the Center for Transit-Oriented Development. (HT Streetsblog)  Given this wealth of analysis for me to sift through, stay tuned for more posts on the Woodward rail, job sprawl, and other transit-related topics.

High speed rail jackpot

Thanks to Florida Governor Rick Scott, Michigan found itself the lucky winner of $200 million in federal funding for high-speed rail this morning:

The bulk of the funds — $196.5 million — is to help retrofit a 135-mile section of the Kalamazoo to Dearborn track for high-speed rail service.

Tim Hoeffner, the Michigan Department of Transportation’s administrator of high-speed rail and innovative projects advancement, said in an interview last month the improvement could be completed by the end of 2013 and shave 50 minutes off the Detroit-Chicago trip, down to about four hours.

In order to accommodate high-speed rail, the track will get upgrades, including new signals, crossing improvements and technical timing devices called positive train control. These improvements will put passenger rail speeds at 79 mph, with train speeds expected eventually to reach 110 mph…

Michigan’s passenger rail services are currently experiencing all time record levels for both ridership and revenue.

While this infusion of federal funds will not suffice to get commuter service up and running between Ann Arbor and Detroit, I presume it would work wonders in terms of improving our service to Chicago.  The Amtrak lines between Chicago and Michigan destinations are notoriously subject to delays;  the last time I rode Ann Arbor to Royal Oak, the train left the station over 90 minutes behind schedule, and the trip took another 90.  The 20% reduction in travel time and the introduction of a dedicated track for passenger travel will make the train a more reliable and viable option along this route.

Dearborn-Kzoo high speed rail

As you can see, I’m still getting this whole pacing my entries thing down.  I was really patting myself on the back for kicking out four posts in the first week.   Week 2 has been a hell of a lot busier.  I was totally rolling my eyes when Andrew Sullivan whined on Weekend Edition about how taxing it had become to maintain The Daily Dish… now I am starting to understand where he’s coming from.

As I’ve put off updating, I’ve found myself with quite the backlog of news to sift through.  A lot has happened just in Detroit and Ann Arbor alone, and I suspect my focus on this blog is going to become primarily local for partly that reason… but we’ll see, it’s young yet.

The biggest news, for me, were two updates to topics I touched on in last week’s posts:  rail transit and Detroit development.  Both developments were positive.  First, as reported by Crain’s:

“The Michigan Department of Transportation will get $150 million in federal aid to improve a proposed high-speed rail corridor between Dearborn and Kalamazoo, it was announced today. The money comes from the 2010 High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Grant Program…  The funding announcement didn’t specify what the money would pay for, but it’s believed to be funding to construct new sidings and signals.”

I don’t know what sidings and signals are, but they must be pretty expensive.  Anyway, this corridor runs smack through Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti on the way from Detroit to Chicago, including where the Amtrak line from East Lansing joins it.   It’s a heavily used corridor for weekend getaways to Chicago and it sounds like it would alleviate some of the severe delays that hinder rail travel between the two metros and make me, for one, think twice about taking Amtrak to Chicago.

Ryan Stanton at Ann Arbor News, I mean AnnArbor.com, fleshes it out a bit more, quoting Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje and :

‘”The track improvements needed to enable higher-speed rail to run this line are the same ones that have been holding up MDOT’s east-west commuter rail project that we have been working on,” Hieftje said, calling the announcement “very good news” for the regional economy.

‘”MDOT’s already put millions of dollars into the commuter rail, and this is the piece that makes it all work,” he said. “What the east-west commuter rail has needed is some track improvements in the Detroit area that will allow spaces for the freights and the passenger trains to pass.”

‘… Being able to improve the Kalamazoo-to-Dearborn portion, he said, is one more piece of the puzzle to allow trains to nearly double their speed between Detroit and Chicago.

‘”This is huge for us,” said Terri Blackmore, executive director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study. “This will allow this portion of the railroad to get to the higher speed.”

‘Blackmore said the money will allow either the state or Amtrak to purchase a portion of track between Ypsilanti and Kalamazoo from Norfolk Southern and make improvements.’

The story, by the way, sure got the attention of AnnArbor.com’s readership — 128 comments at last count, which is stratospheric for stories on that site.   A lot of them were speculation that the timing of the announcement, or even the award of the funds, was politically motivated in order to give Congressman Dingell a last-minute boost prior to Election Day.   I’m pretty sure that’s not how US DOT’s funding programs work, as this is not a congressional appropriation (aka ‘pork’) but a competitive grant, but regardless, I’m one of those who’ll gladly take federal money for rail transit in my area, no questions asked.

I’ll cover the Living City award — the good news in Detroit development I mentioned — in the next post.

Moving Michigan: updates on federal funding for WALLY, Ann Arbor – Detroit rail

Some news this week on the Quixotic quest of Southeast Michigan transit planners for light and commuter rail.

First, the proposed commuter line to connect the teeming metropolis of Howell (population ~10,000) with the even more teeming Ann Arbor (population ~113,000), thirty miles away, was denied federal funding for the second time:

‘Michael Benham, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority strategic planner… said there are no pending grant requests for WALLY at this time, but “there are some sources of money (AATA) needs to investigate.”‘

This remark strikes me as similar to when I say I need to start eating more vegetables.   Can AATA quit wasting oxygen on this already?

In related news, Crain’s Detroit Business reports that next week we’ll find out if the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail project will get $200 million in Federal Rail Administration funding.  I remember in January of this year, when SEMCOG was saying the line could be up and running by year’s end; then, less than two months later, it backtracked and said it would instead run “only for special events beginning in October (2010).”  (It’s October, by the way, and I haven’t heard anything about these special events, presumably UM football games, or the special trains that are supposed to be serving them.)  Washtenaw County elected officials (namely County Commissioner/state rep-elect Jeff Irwin) responded by taking SEMCOG to the woodshed for failing to piece the necessary funding together on schedule.  Right now, I’m only slightly less jaded about the prospects for this commuter service than I am about WALLY.  Even if it gets federal funding, I don’t foresee the political will in the Michigan legislature to muster its share of the necessary dollars, since it hasn’t even managed to pass a budget on time for the past several years.

So as not to be a total Debbie Downer, I’ll close with some fun links: