Ann Arbor’s New Amtrak Depot Plans Got Too Big and Expensive

In the wake of a decision by the Federal Railroad Administration to pull out of a project to build a new Amtrak station in Ann Arbor, Michigan, city officials are seeking ways to keep the project going, including reducing the project’s scope.

Work on getting a new Amtrak station in Ann Arbor began about a decade ago.

At the time, then Mayor John Hieftje projected the station would cost $30 million and the city would pay less than $3 million of that with the federal government picking up most of the tab.

Hieftje expected to do what Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, did in building a new $28.2 million Amtrak station with federal stimulus money paying for most of it.

But over time the size of the proposed Ann Arbor station expanded and so did its costs. After cost estimates reached $171 million, the FRA backed away.

News accounts of the FRA’s decision focused on the agency’s belief that the station would have too much parking for intercity rail service.

But Amtrak passengers were not expected to be the only user of the station.

At one time local government planning agencies in Ann Arbor, Detroit and other communities along with the Michigan Department of Transportation were eyeing creating a commuter rail service.

The University of Michigan offered to buy commuter train tickets for its employees in lieu of them buying parking permits on the crowded campus.

MDOT acquired a fleet of passenger cars that would be used for the service.

The expectation of commuter rail service was the major deciding factor for locating the new station in Fuller Park next to the University of Michigan Hospital.

Rather than paying $1,000 a year for a parking pass, employees would be able to ride free on a commuter train.

Heiftjie noted that tens of thousands of daily commuters have jobs in Ann Arbor. City officials saw an opportunity to create a place where more people could travel without cars and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The UM hospital is the most visited place in Ann Arbor on a daily basis.

But the commuter rail concept collapsed after Michigan voters rejected a bond issue that would have funded development of the service.

All along, city planners had seen the station as a two-phase development with the second phase hinging on the creating of the commuter rail service.

The proposed station would have a parking deck with 1,300 spaces, although most of those spaces were expected to be used by commuter train passengers.

But other design features also drove up costs, including elevating the station and building a bridge over the tracks. Another considerable expense included constructing a retaining wall to stabilize the slope leading to the UM hospital.

But most of the expense of the project involved the parking deck, including elevator/stair towers and a metal fin design to soften the deck’s appearance and make it look like “an art object.”

A first floor bus station was also included in the plans as well as a bicycle maintenance and storage area.
In pulling out of the project, the FRA described the project costs as being “an order of magnitude higher” than other stations the agency had funded.

Heiftjie has since left office and his successor as mayor, Christopher Taylor, continued to support building a new Amtrak station.

The city’s current station is located west of the former Michigan Central depot, which is now a restaurant.

Built in 1982, city officials consider the station too cramped given the level of ridership there.

Ann Arbor is the busiest passenger rail station in Michigan although it suffered significant ridership losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ridership of the Wolverine Service route between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac) in 2020 was 278,450 compared with 990,068 in 2019. In Ann Arbor ridership fell from 154,813 in 2019 to 41,013 last year.

Hieftjie said he doesn’t regret pushing the project even though in hindsight he believes the city tried to go too big in recent years and proposed too much parking.

He said when he began pushing the project it was a different world and he had high hopes for significant growth in rail ridership.

Now Hieftjie is not so sure that could happen due to changes brought about by COVID-19.

“The environment has changed,” he said. “We’re obviously in a whole different period. Due to COVID, people are not riding trains like they used to. I think it’s going to be a while before people return to transit.”

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