The Ann Arbor (Michigan) City Council this week approved a contract with a consultant to begin design and engineering work for a new Amtrak station, but not before city officials had to defend the need for the new facility.
Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, acknowledged the ridership decline, but said in any event that a new station is needed because of crowding at the existing station and its poor condition.
“I would invite council members, members of the community, to come out and experience the existing Ann Arbor Amtrak station during periods of heavy use,” Cooper said. “The waiting room is substandard for the complement of passengers boarding trains today. This is based on the current ridership.”
Amtrak opened the existing modular station in 1983. When Amtrak began service in 1971, it served Ann Arbor through the former Michigan Central passenger station.
But it was squeezed out of that facility, which is today a privately-owned restaurant known as the Gandy Dancer.
A new Amtrak station is projected to cost more than $2 million with 80 percent of that cost being picked up by a federal grant.
But the station project has drawn the ire of some council members because it is behind schedule and over budget.
The city has yet to settle on a site for the new depot, which could be built near the existing station on Depot Street or in Fuller Park.
Voting against spending money for the design and engineering work were Jack Eaton, Sumi Kailasapathy and Jane Lumm.
“This is a project that’s been consistently behind schedule and over budget,” Lumm said. “I’m not sure what makes us think that won’t continue. A good portion of the local dollars already invested are gone and, I fear, wasted. And we sit here tonight being asked to commit another $500,000 of taxpayer money.”
Lumm noted that the city faces a deadline to get the station completed before the federal grant expires.
“But because of the delays along the way, the clock is running out on the grant funding, so we’re now being asked to scramble and dive in to the next phase immediately,” she said. “That’s just not how we should be doing things.”
Cooper admitted that ridership projections that were calculated in 2014 may be overly optimistic.
One projection was that Ann Arbor would be handling nearly 1.4 million rail passengers in 2025. That would include Amtrak patronage of 969,000 and another 516.000 for a still-to-be-funded commuter rail service to Detroit. It was also based on Amtrak service increasing from three to 10 roundtrips a day between Chicago and Detroit.
In Amtrak’s fiscal year 2016, which ended on Sept. 30, it handled 122,534 passengers, an 18 percent drop from ridership of three years earlier.
“The anticipated commuter service and the forecast and projection for future growth in both rail ridership and use at this station are, if you will, perhaps not well founded, but the need for the initial investment is in order to remedy the defects of the current station,” Cooper said.
Amtrak and state transportation officials have said that falling gasoline prices have cut into Amtrak ridership in Michigan.
Another factor was that during summer and fall of 2016 track work between Battle Creek and Jackson cut the level of service.
The work sponsored by Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation affected 41 miles of track and involved replacing 26,000 railroad ties, repairing or installing 15 track switches, realigning or modifying 29 railroad curves, repairing 23 railroad grade crossings and improving road profiles at crossings.
Amtrak also upgraded its signal system east of Kalamazoo. The work was originally scheduled to be completed in September but did not end until November.
The State of Michigan owns most of the route between Kalamazoo and Dearborn while Amtrak owns the route between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana.
The work was conducted as part of the Michigan Accelerated Rail Program with state officials saying that passengers will benefit from improved reliability, a smoother ride and the first 110-mph Amtrak service in the Midwest.