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Those hoping to hop aboard a new commuter train and travel back and forth between Ann Arbor and Detroit may have to wait a little bit longer than the original launch date of October 2010 for the service.
The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and Michigan's Department of Transportation (MDOT) drafted a letter on March 31 to the steering committee overseeing the creation of such a transit line, stating that a lack of funds will push that date back.
SEMCOG Executive Director Paul Tait said the project was passed over for federal high speed rail funding because the cost per rider for the region would be higher than other areas applying for the same funds.
“We had every anticipation that we would have four trains running daily by this year,” he said. “We are as disappointed as anybody. We have been working with MDOT to pull this together on a shoestring.”
When daily commuter service will be offered remains unclear, but Tait said SEMCOG is committed to finishing the project when a $30-50 million funding gap is bridged.
“We are close,” Tait said, “but we just don't have that last chunk of money. We are still very optimistic about the project.”
This remaining funding could still come from federal grant programs, he said, a few of which will become available for application in the next few months.
There may also be a need to ask local governments and organizations for help with the project, Tait said, though this has not yet been done.
Some states, he said, have taxes that specifically support transit system development. Without these dedicated sources of funding, he said, and with MDOT's funding levels going down because of decreasing gas tax revenues, finding funding for such a large project can be difficult.
Recently, high competition for federal funds has also made it difficult for the Ann Arbor-Detroit project to qualify for assistance, Tait said.
“The federal government was looking to give the money where they are going to get their biggest bang for the buck,” he said. “We weren't even close to competing on the cost per rider.”
The project has not halted, though, according to Tait. The goal of providing a commuter train between the two cities with 4-8 trains passing daily at six passenger stops is still what the project team is working towards, he said.
Right now, SEMCOG is in the process of refurbishing used railroad cars and has identified locomotives to purchase that will pull the trains. The used passenger cars will be gutted and, when finished, look “as good as new cars,” according to Tait.
Stops in Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Detroit will using existing facilities, though new platforms will need to be built in Ypsilanti and Westland to allow passengers to access the trains. Ypsilanti's platform will be located near the Ypsilanti Freighthouse in Depot Town and Westland's platform will be located at the Wayne County Library for the Blind on W. Michigan Avenue.
What people can expect by the end of the year, Tait said, is the introduction of trains on the days of certain special events only, meant to provide an example of the benefit such a rail service could have for the communities it passes through. Events being considered for these demonstrations include Detroit's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the annual Michigan vs. Michigan State football game in Ann Arbor.
Current project funding should cover the cost of new platforms and platform improvements, he said, but the cost of necessary track improvements make up most of the $30-50 million gap. The rail carriers on whose tracks a commuter train would run have requested improvements be made to certain sections of track if both freight and passenger trains will be running on them regularly.
To help better explain the status of the project, SEMCOG is inviting anyone interested in the proposed commuter rail system to a public meeting 9 a.m. April 27 at SEMCOG offices at 535 Griswold Street, Suite 300, in Detroit.
“There has been a lot of misinformation out there about what we are trying to do,” Tait said. “We just want to clear the air.”
He said he understands the frustration of the public and local officials who want to see the project come to fruition.
“We wish it were faster,” Tait said, “but that's the life in the transit business.”
SEMCOG is made up of local governments in seven counties surrounding Metro Detroit and focus on issues related to transportation, the environment, community and economic development, and education.