Ann Arbor To Continue Studying Station Sites

The Ann Arbor City Council will stay with the process of creating a new Amtrak station for a little longer.

The council this week voted 8-3 to provide additional funding to a consultant to finish an environmental assessment and move forward with preliminary engineering designs for multiple possible sites.

The council acted after the Federal Railroad Administration sought additional information and analysis of different alternatives.

Speaking in favor of continuing the process, Mayor Christopher Taylor said Ann Arbor demands better rail service.

“Better rail service for the city of Ann Arbor is critical to our economic improvement, to our quality-of-life improvement, to our environmental improvement,” Taylor said. “It is part of, I believe, the vision for the future of Ann Arbor that is shared by residents everywhere.”

But in voting against the proposal, council member Jane Lumm was skeptical that the city could meet its ambitious target dates for study and design work.

The city faces a late September deadline to spend a $2.8 million federal grant that it received in 2011.

The council’s latest action authorizes spending another $137,026 for the study and design work, which will now total $1,088,700 and must be completed before the federal grant expires on Sept. 30.

The city has yet to decide on a site for the new station. Among the proposals have been building a new depot off Depot Street or Fuller Road. Three other locations are still under consideration, including the existing Amtrak site on Depot Street, part of Fuller Park in front of the University of Michigan Hospital, and the former Michigan Central station, which is now the Gandy Dancer restaurant.

When asked why the city was doing preliminary engineering work for all the different alternatives as opposed to one preferred option, City Administrator Howard Lazarus said the FRA believes that Ann Arbor doesn’t “have a clear winner.”

The new station selection process has been dragging on for more than a decade, a point brought up by the dissenting council members.

Lazarus recommended moving ahead with the environmental assessment and releasing it to the public for a 30-day review.

The city would then seek a “finding of no significant impact” declaration from the FRA for a preferred option for a new Amtrak station.

At that point, he said the city would have a finished document that would be “non-perishable” and could be used to position the city for future FRA funding for final design and construction.

Lazarus and Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, said Ann Arbor remains at the mercy of the FRA.

Cooper said there have been private communications with the FRA over the past few years, but he was not at liberty to share that information publicly.

The grant was actually awarded to the Michigan Department of Transportation which along with the FRA has specific processes with regard to freedom of information.

Both agencies have told the city that they don’t want draft materials being released to the public.

However, Cooper said no final decision has been made about where a new train station should be built.

He said city staff, MDOT and the FRA look forward to receiving public views on the environmental assessment once the FRA authorizes its release.

Lazarus said that if the council failed to approve spending another $130,000, “we’re going to have to put a fork in it [station project] because it’s done.”

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