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RTA wants Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail service

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The Regional Transit Authority wants to give life to a long-stalled Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail line that would connect the cities’ downtowns.

Cars that were retired from Chicago’s Metra system are intended for a proposed commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

The 38-mile line has been discussed for more than a decade but was in need of a funding source. The RTA plans to solve that issue by folding the cost of the service, which would use existing Amtrak lines, into its November millage request.

The proposed service was approved Thursday by the RTA board as part of its Michigan Avenue corridor study, which also includes bus rapid transit. The rail line also will provide access to the upcoming QLine — also known as the M-1 Rail line — running through the heart of Detroit as well as other transit services, including possible shuttles to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

If the millage passes this fall, RTA officials estimate the route could start around 2022, with annual operating costs between $11 million to $19 million. It would cost around $130 million in capital costs to get the service up and running and build a maintenance facility, much cheaper than starting from scratch, officials said.

The RTA — which is expected to seek a 1-mill property tax increase that would raise an estimated $130 million a year for the life of what could be a 20-year millage — first began discussing including the rail line as part of the millage in spring of last year.

“It’s a significant connector between Ann Arbor and Detroit,” said Paul Hillegonds, the RTA’s board chairman. “One of the criticisms of rail always is it’s much more expensive than bus rapid transit, but in this case, the existing infrastructure is in place. It makes sense from a cost-effective standpoint, and I think will be very attractive to riders, and I think a very significant economic development tool for the region.”

The commuter rail line will be formally presented as part of the authority’s master plan on May 31, which will also include three bus rapid transit routes up Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues, in addition to possible transit options, such as an airport shuttle service.

Under the plan, there will be rail service between the cities eight times a day: three rides during morning and afternoon rush hours, and one in the afternoon and evening. The line will start at the Amtrak Ann Arbor station with stops in Ypsilanti, Wayne, Dearborn and New Center in Detroit.

For years, the Michigan Department of Transportation and Southeast Michigan Council of Governments studied and discussed the route. MDOT spent $7.6 million to refurbish retired cars from Chicago’s Metra system, which were left idled. MDOT received more federal funds to upgrade the existing Amtrak lines to accommodate the passenger trains.

The RTA estimates the lease for the rail cars to be $4,000 per vehicle per month. The cars are being housed near Owosso. The state once rented the cars, too, but stopped last year. The RTA is expected to use nine of the 23 cars and request them as early as 2019, officials said.

RTA CEO Michael Ford said rail, bus rapid transit and other transit options are key to putting together a truly “integrated system” to help people get where they want to go.

“Ann Arbor and Detroit are major hubs for jobs,” Ford said. “People being able to get back and forth conveniently and quickly. I think it’s a game-changer in a lot of ways. I know it’s been tried many times before, but having that kind of frequency of service, it’s very important to the region and getting people where they want to go.”

Kathleen Lomako, executive director at SEMCOG, said she is pleased that the RTA picked up and will hopefully implement the line and that it should be a boost to its referendum to voters this fall.

“For some people, it’s not real transit unless it’s a rail system,” Lomako said. “Now, we think bus rapid transit offers many of the same features. But there is kind of a predisposition on the part of the public to have rail, and here’s an opportunity to implement some of it in our region. It was always the reason why we worked on that project. It’s really about introducing people to transit.”

Ben Stupka, manager of planning and financial analysis for the RTA, said the rail cars would be used for other purposes by Great Lakes Central Railroad, which owns the cars, until the RTA needs them. Stupka added the tracks are being improved so the RTA, Amtrak and freighter cars can operate together.

Megan Owens, president of Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy group, called the rail line “an excellent piece” to the transit component before voters this fall and provides a “quick, reliable way to connect these communities.”

“For certain folks in Washtenaw County, this is an absolutely vital component of the plan because riding a bus the entire length between Ann Arbor and Detroit, even if it has occasional stops, is going to be a long trip,” she said.

“I believe a lot of people will be excited about that option, even if they’re not going to use it all the time ... to be able to hop on a train to go to a game at the Big House or for people who come out to the Thanksgiving Day Parade and not have to fight through traffic.”

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