Posts Tagged ‘Detroit commuter rail service’

Detroit-Ann Arbor Commuter Rail Service Getting Boost From Southeast Michigan RTA Master Plan

May 23, 2016

A Detroit-based public transportation agency is trying to jump start the long dormant idea of instituting commuter rail service between downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority is proposing linking the Detroit-Ann Arbor service with the currently under construction Detroit streetcar network.

SE Michigan RTAThe RTA board is proposing to include the Ann Arbor service as well as bus rapid transit in its Michigan Avenue corridor study.

Lack of funding has stalled development of the 38-mile Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter service, which would use the same tracks used by Amtrak’s Wolverine Service trains.

Those rails are now mostly owned by the state of Michigan, which several years ago leased passenger cars for use in the service.

To fund the Ann Arbor commuter service, RTA is proposing to include that cost into its November millage request.

If the millage request is approved, RTA officials say the service could begin around 2022 and have an operating cost of $11 million to $19 million.

The service would required $130 million in capital costs to get started, which would include building a maintenance facility.

“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.”

RTA will present its commuter rail line proposal on May 31 as part of its master plan

The Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter service would operate eight times a day with trips spread out to include morning and afternoon rush hour service as well as afternoon and evening trains.

Intermediate stops would include Ypsilanti, Wayne and Dearborn. Trains would terminate in Detroit in the New Center area.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has spent $7.6 million to overhaul 23 former Chicago Metra bi-level commuter cars, but stopped paying the lease payments on them last year.

RTA estimates it would cost $4,000 per month per car to lease them from current owner Great Lakes Central Railroad. The agency has proposed leasing nine of the cars, which are currently sitting in Owosso, Michigan.

Saying that development of rail, bus rapid transit and other transit options is needed to create an “integrated system” to help people get where they want to go, RTA CEO Michael Ford said that Ann Arbor and Detroit are major hubs for jobs.

“People being able to get back and forth conveniently and quickly,” Ford said. “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.”

MDOT Seeking to Rework Rail Cars Lease

June 4, 2015

The Michigan Department of Transportation is expected to end its lease of idle commuter rail cars in Michigan.

In doing so, MDOT will continue to have access to the cars for commuter railroad service in southeast Michigan for up to five years.

The 23 bi-level galley cars that once ran in Chicago are owned by Great Lakes Central Railroad, which is storing them in Owosso, Michigan.

Great Lakes would have the ability to use the cars for other uses, including subleasing them to other commuter agencies. MDOT would no longer lease the cars after Sept. 30.

MDOT and Great Lakes are currently negotiating contract terms and conditions for the agency’s continued ability to use the cars when commuter rail operations in Michigan begin in 2019 as projected.

“This agreement remove’s MDOT’s lease expense and protects the state’s investment in the commuter rail cars,” Michigan State Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said.

Steudle had set a June 1 target date to finish a new agreement for the cars. If the railroad and state cannot reach an agreement, MDOT has the option to terminate the lease 30 days after issuing a letter to the railroad.

The cars have been rehabilitated in expectation of being used for commuter rail demonstration projects between Dearborn and Detroit, and Howell and Ann Arbor.

As Rail Cars for Michigan Commuter Services Sit, Some Question Spending Millions on Leasing Them

February 7, 2015

They sit in waiting in Owosso, Mich., but aren’t likely to see any use for at least two more years.

Five years ago the Michigan Department of Transportation leased 23 bi-level ex-Metra commuter rail cars for use in commuter service between Detroit and Ann Arbor, and between Ann Arbor and Howell.

But the cars have yet to operate and are costing Michigan taxpayers $1.1 million a year.

In the meantime, the cost of starting up the commuter service is nearly $12 million and rising.

Some Michigan lawmakers are concerned about the expenditures .

“They’re betting on something that might not even come to fruition,” said Rep. Marilyn Lane, D-Fraser, who is minority vice-chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“I’m mad,” Lane said. “If we have these dollars to peel off, we should be fixing the roads. For MDOT to jump so far out front on this is concerning.”

Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, said he doesn’t want to say much until he has more information on the contract.

The deal was signed during the administration of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, but amended four times during the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican — each time to increase the contract’s maximum cost.

“Any lease that we’re not using for something does concern me,” Hansen said. “I need to find out at the end of the day what are their plans, what is the time frame, when are the cars going to be used.”

Tim Hoeffner, director of MDOT’s Office of Rail, agreed that the commuter rail project is “costing us more money than we wished it would.”

“I’m not going to try and spin this,” Hoeffner told the Detroit Free Press. “Would we have liked to have gotten the service up and running sooner? Absolutely. Would we have liked to have timed the lease and the overhaul of the equipment to better fit with the start of the services? Absolutely.”

But Hoeffner said he doesn’t think MDOT made a mistake because there is a long lead time need to get equipment.

He said MDOT was correct to acquire equipment before other needed items were in place.

Hoeffner said a poor economy kept the commuter rail services from starting more quickly.

He said that the project has been a boost to Michigan workers and businesses because much of the money spent to renovate the cars was spent in-state.

“Monday morning quarterbacking, hindsighting this, yes, we could have done a lot of things differently,” Hoeffner said. “Based on the available information, and based on the estimated risks, we made sound decisions,” and “time will tell … whether or not we have failed miserably or been great visionaries.”

The 1950s and 1960s-era cars are owned by Great Lakes Central Railroad. MDOT has paid $7.6 million to overhaul the cars and another $2.7 million in lease charges. The cars were previously used in Chicago and sold by Metra.

The per-car lease costs more than doubled in 2013 and 2014 as refurbishments were completed and the cars were certified as rail-worthy.

The contract with MDOT required it to start paying “in-service” rates that total about $3,000 a day, even though the cars are just sitting in a yard in Shiawassee County about 30 miles northeast of Lansing.

MDOT has paid another $1.1 million to its consultant on the rail car project, Pennsylvania-based Quandel.

Hoeffner said it can cost $2 million to $3 million per car to purchase new cars, and $400,000 to $500,000 per car to purchase new equipment.

On that basis, the cost of the project — which now approaches $500,000 per car when renovation costs are included — is not out of line, he said.

“Without having firm dates as to when these services are going to start and what all of that is, I believe that it is prudent to question what we’ve done,” Hoeffner said.

The cars are sitting because there is no funding or operator for the commuter operation. Also, the required environmental studies are not complete.

The tracks to be used between Detroit and Ann Arbor service, which are also used by Amtrak, are about to undergo a rebuilding.

The $11.4 million that MDOT has spent to date on the commuter rail project has come from Michigan’s $300-million Comprehensive Transportation Fund. The money in this fund comes largely from fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, and is mainly used to pay for transit and rail.

Under state law, at least 10 percent of appropriations from the fund must be allocated for intercity passenger services, which includes rail projects.

Michael Frezell, a spokesman for MDOT, said the project money came from that allocation and could not have been spent on roads, although it could have been spent on other eligible projects such as a bus service between two Michigan cities or another rail-related project.

The project costs are small when compared to the $1.2 billion that Gov. Snyder wants to raise for additional road repairs through a May 5 ballot proposal that would raise the sales tax to 7 percent.

MDOT could have leased and overhauled just 15 of the 23 cars and Hoeffner said that in hindsight it would have made sense to have done that.

He estimates that only five cars, including a spare, need to be allocated to a Howell-Ann Arbor commuter service.

That service, he said, is likely to go into operation before the Ann Arbor-Detroit service.

MDOT has been moving the cars around for display in places such as Ann Arbor and Dearborn to drum up interest in the commuter services.

The state agency is also looking for temporary and short-term uses for some of the cars.

One ideas is to assign them to Amtrak’s Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette, which MDOT helps to underwrite. 

Hoeffner said that would require the cars to have handicapped-accessible restrooms. Initially, Hoeffner opted to refurbish the cars without restrooms but has since reconsidered.

MDOT recently spent $300,000 to equip two of the cars with handicap restrooms and may pay to put similar restrooms in other cars.

Michigan Auditor General Doug Ringler has also been looking into the commuter rail expenditures and will report to the Legislature soon.

Carmine Palombo, deputy executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, has been working with local officials on developing the commuter rail services.

He said there’s enthusiasm for the projects all along the proposed lines, but the best bet for the Detroit-Ann Arbor service might be if the new Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan decides to include the proposed service in a four-county transit-related ballot proposal planned for November 2016.

Rail upgrades are under way for the next two construction seasons on the state-owned former Michigan Central route to Ann Arbor.

Hoeffner and Palombo said they don’t want to start commuter rail service during that construction period because it could cause delays.

“The real key on both of these services is that without a commitment from the local communities to provide funding to help cover the operating deficits of the service, they’re not going to get moving,” Palombo said.

Michael Cicchella, a former supervisor of Northfield Township in Washtenaw County, said he worked hard on promoting the commuter service in 2007 and 2008 before stepping aside in frustration.

He cited resistance in Livingston County for the project not proceeding when he thought it should have.

Cicchella said commuter rail service between Howell and Ann Arbor could save lives by taking thousands of commuters a day off heavily congested U.S. 23.

Detroit-Ann Arbor Commuter Rail 2-3 Years Away

January 18, 2014

Michigan transportation officials said this week that a Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail service is another two to three years away.

Carmine Palombo, director of transportation programs for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said his agency is eyeing five roundtrips a day with stops in Ypsilanti, Detroit Metro Airport and Dearborn.

To be successful, Palombo said, the project needs railcars, track, an agreeable owner and funding.

Twenty-three railcars have been refurbished and tested, and the Michigan Department of Transportation is now the owner of the tracks after striking a $140 million deal to buy it from Norfolk Southern in December 2012.

Palombo said track improvements before the route can host additional passenger trains. That work is underway and will take two to three years to complete.

A capacity study also is required to identify additional capacity for passenger trains and that should be starting soon, Palombo said.

“MDOT and SEMCOG are committed to this project and working to overcome hurdles towards a successful opening,” he said, noting the rail line is expected to connect to streetcar and bus rapid transit services at the New Center station in Detroit.

If other issues can be resolved with Amtrak, Palombo said, it’s possible there could be demonstration commuter trains running to certain special events in Ann Arbor and Detroit sometime within the next year or two.

The Southeast Michigan Regional Transportation Authority is expected to be the controlling organization for the commuter rail service.

The route of the commuter trains is currently used by Amtrak’s Wolverine Service. There are three roundtrips a day between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac) over the route.