Proponents of economic development in Ann Arbor have undervalued the long-term, livability benefits of a Depot Street station. A well-planned two-station arrangement could address livability, mobility, and community interests.
The City of Ann Arbor has determined that a new train station is necessary to handle increasing intercity rail ridership, which is projected to increase over the next few decades. It has narrowed the two final site options to Depot Street, located at the site of the current station in Kerrytown, and Fuller Road, located on Fuller Park near the University of Michigan (UM) Medical Campus. Three design alternatives are being considered for the Depot St site, and one design alternative for the Fuller Road site. The study now awaits a preferred alternative decision by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Information about the train station study is available on the city’s website.
The debate between the two sites has in many ways been a proxy debate between, as local blogger Vivienne Armentrout coined it, so-called Townies and so-called Economic Development Visionaries. The former supposedly resists more intense development in the city to preserve its once small-town charm, and the latter supposedly wants to densify Ann Arbor into a big city. Indeed, the idea for a station at Fuller was championed in 2009 by then-Mayor John Hieftje, a Visionary, who attempted work with UM to build a parking structure and train station at Fuller Park. The plan was halted in 2012 when UM decided to build their structure at another nearby location, diverting their financial contribution for the station project, but the vision for a station at Fuller, shared by some other Visionaries, still lingered. The Townies, on the other hand, have resisted a Fuller station, largely on the argument that the City would have to repurpose parkland to build a station. It should be noted that the the parkland in question has been used as a parking lot by UM since 1993.
In general, I tend to side with the Visionaries on issues related to transportation and development in the city. If we want to prepare Ann Arbor for the future in the face of rising housing costs and demand for alternative transportation options, a forward-looking approach that, among other things, looks critically at the current state of our transportation infrastructure and zoning regulations and allows for constant incremental change is imperative.
However, we should be wary to take ideological sides in this debate, as reflexive as this may be for some of us. Indeed, I fell into this trap and was supportive of a Fuller Road station when Hieftje proposed it in back in 2009. Current mayor Christopher Taylor, also a Visionary, has stated his preference for the Fuller Road site, but would accept an FRA recommendation of Depot. Other City Council Visionaries have stated similar opinions. From what I can tell, none of the City Council Visionaries have publicly come out to support the Depot site. I wonder if this battle had not originally been fought in the ideological domain how the Visionaries might talk about it today. At any rate, rather than this polarizing discussion, we should focus on what truly builds wealth in the community over the long run. Transportation is just a means to an end. The end is a city that is resilient, accommodates growth, and allows its residents to thrive socially and economically over the long term – goals the Visionaries would support.
One of the best characteristics of the railroad between Ann Arbor and Detroit, currently owned mostly by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), is that it travels through high-activity areas of the main cities along the corridor. These areas include Kerrytown Ann Arbor, New Center in Detroit, and Depot Town in Ypsilanti. In this corridor, investments in the cores of our cities have been increasing over the years. Ongoing residential development in downtown Ann Arbor and construction of the Q-Line on Woodward Ave in Detroit are just a couple notable examples. A common thread through these areas is the gentle urban street grid where it is safe or even pleasant to walk and where there is a diversity of uses (shops, homes, business, churches, etc) that more or less bring people out throughout the day. In short, they are places, and they rock!
The Depot Street site, located at the edge of the Kerrytown neighborhood and home of the existing station, is integrated relatively well, though not perfectly, with its surroundings. Crosswalks, calm traffic, and proximity to residential areas allow many passengers to walk fairly comfortably to their final destination.
Stairs to a protected walk on the Broadway Bridge provides access for those heading northeast, but accessing the Amtrak parking lot on the opposite side of the tracks is still burdensome.
A walkshed map around the Depot Street site shows all of downtown, Kerrytown, Lower Town, most of UM Central and Medical Campuses, and even much of the Old West Side and Water Hill neighborhoods within a 20-minute walk. Most importantly, the development pattern between Depot Street and these destinations is pedestrian-friendly.
Contrast this to the Fuller site, where a 20-minute walkshed includes less of UM Central campus, downtown, and adjacent neighborhoods.
Moreover, pedestrian access to the station is inconvenient and uninviting. The area is already a pedestrian-unfriendly environment, as the built environment is configured to prioritize cars and lacks a street network or architecture style that could facilitate pleasant access to any nearby residential areas and amenities.
The large number of transit routes along the Fuller Road corridor is often used to describe the potential for multi-modal connectivity, but this seems to ignore the practical constraint that the railroad is located approximately 100 yards from the street (Fuller).
If existing transit routes were to serve the station, tough choices appear likely:
- Buses would have to “detour” to loop in and out of the station, causing delays for passengers already on those busy routes. (This is especially inconvenient for westbound buses, which must make multiple turns from and onto Fuller Road.)
- Buses don’t pull into the station, forcing rail passengers from the station to walk all the way to Fuller Road, which is both inconvenient and unsafe, especially for westbound bus riders.
- Only a subset of buses access the station, reducing the frequency for the “direct-route” bus riders, decreasing the quality of service on those routes. This seems problematic for those high-ridership UM bus routes.
- New routes originating from the station are added, which could be done at the Depot Street site anyway.
It’s quite hard for me to see how planners and engineers can get around this geometric challenge. Unless, of course…
Lest we forget the pet project of many officials in this city! I should admit, I like the Connector project, too. In my mind, the Connector, a planned light rail route between UM’s campuses along their high-ridership bus routes, is the one argument that makes the Fuller Road site even competitive with Depot Street. The strongest point is that the Connector would travel on an elevated guideway above the railroad right-of-way (not on Fuller Road like the buses), share a station with the intercity service, and thus allow for intercity rail passengers to make seamless connections to the rest of the UM campuses. Case closed, right?
But are intercity rail passengers really coming to Ann Arbor to access campus? If they are, they are likely students returning to campus housing. According to the parking requirements analysis done for the city by URS, approximately half of Ann Arbor Amtrak riders are students, and about 30% of students live in campus housing, much of which is close to the planned Connector stops. With Ann Arbor intercity rail ridership projected to be 485,000 annually in 2035, we can roughly calculate a high-end estimate of the number of intercity passengers transferring the Connector for their last mile as follows:
485,000 riders/year x 50% students x 30% campus residents =
72,750 transfers to the Connector per year, OR
200 daily transfers (on average)
The average daily estimated Connector ridership in 2040 is 31,600. Thus, the number of transfers to the Connector would be less than 1% of the total ridership on the Connector on the high end. The transfers would tend to peak during holidays and weekends (though increased service would probably spread them out throughout the day), but on average the percentage of trips would be small.
The point here is that, while the ability to transfer from intercity rail to the Connector would be a nice feature, it likely will not be used much compared to the overall demand of the Connector within the campus/city. Therefore, if we’re planning to spend millions of dollars on a station, we should place the importance of this connection in the context of how many people for whom it truly improves mobility. Should it supersede integration with the downtown and potential adjacent development? Could 200 people complete their first/last mile everyday on foot, bicycle, or well-planned bus routes if the station were located at Depot? At ten daily round trips, an average of 20 passengers per train doing so seems entirely possible.
A similar argument is made for transfers from commuter rail to the Connector. While the core purpose of the city’s evaluation is for a station to serve intercity rail passengers, it does seem prudent to consider potential commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit when deciding the station location, even though the narrow failure of the vote in November 2016 to fund the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority makes the prospect of commuter rail more uncertain for now. The argument of high employment on UM campuses is often brought up, and we can try digging a little deeper with some simplified calculations.
According to commuting data from SEMCOG, Ann Arbor had 100,914 workers in 2010, with 62,744 (62%) commuting from outside of the city and 38,170 from within (38%). The commuting data also showed 11,085 workers commute from communities along the rail line (considered here as Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, Romulus, Dearborn, and Detroit). The Connector study estimates 9% growth in residents and 20% growth in jobs in Ann Arbor from 2010 to 2040. Under these assumptions, out-of-town commuters would grow by approximately 27%, resulting in 14,043 commuters from the commuter rail line communities out of 121,096 total workers. The Connector would be useful for UM campus (non-Medical Center) workers, which account for about 19% of total jobs in Ann Arbor. If 15% of these commuters choose to take commuter rail (this is aggressive, given that even the Chicago area, which has a mature commuter rail network, has a transit mode share under 15%.), then:
14,043 workers from rail line communities x 19% at UM campus x 15% commuter rail mode share =
400 daily transfers to the Connector
Like with intercity rail transfers, we see that the number of transfers from commuter rail to the Connector is a relatively small percentage (under 2%) of the total estimated Connector ridership. This is also likely on the high end; my simplified calculations are actually more aggressive than RTA’s own commuter rail ridership estimates (for eight daily round trips). And many of these campus jobs would already be within walking distance from Depot Street. Local bus connections and cycling/bikeshare could also be employed effectively there.
Of course, a Fuller Road station would also be useful for commuters to the UM Medical Center, who could simply walk to their jobs from the station. Using the same method as above, assuming that approximately 25% of total workers in Ann Arbor work at UM Medical Center:
14,043 workers from rail line communities x 25% at UM Medical Center x 15% commuter rail mode share =
527 daily passengers to the Medical Center
This is a small fraction of the tens of thousands of UM Medical Center workers. But while this decent number of commuters into Ann Arbor from the rail line communities could indeed benefit from a Fuller station, most (56%, or 1,180 daily passengers under the same mode share) would get no added benefit from being dropped off at Fuller versus Depot. Furthermore, the SEMCOG data also show that in 2010, 3,750 people commuted from Ann Arbor to the rail line communities. An (aggressive) 15-percent commuter rail mode share would bring the number of commuter rail riders from Ann Arbor to 613 (in 2040). I suspect the larger walkshed, downtown and neighborhood accessibility, and potentially well-planned transit connections at Depot would make Depot a more attractive location for most people in these groups. Fuller may still be more convenient for others for other reasons, including the Connector.
Although these numbers are admittedly back-of-the-envelope, the relative magnitudes indicate to me that a station at Fuller, though useful for some, isn’t a slam dunk for mobility in the overall transportation picture, especially for intercity passengers.
And what if the Connector doesn’t get built? It is, after all, an expensive project for a city our size. The challenges related to proximity, walkability, and geometry mentioned earlier would still exist at Fuller without any simple solutions. Is it a good idea to fund and build a station at Fuller without this being a certainty?
With a substantial infrastructure project that would be prominently in the public eye, it’s important to consider how it interacts with the city. How does it look? Will it make us proud? Currently, there are no plans for a Fuller Road station to incorporate any further development that would increase interaction with the station. It would not encounter many passersby who are not driving. There are no plans for housing or retail or even University buildings. Add to this the substantial distance from the street mentioned earlier, and you get a design where the station is set back from the main access point (Fuller Road) and where the structure that is most visible from this main access point is a huge parking deck. Indeed, the design alternative being considered for the Fuller Road site is just that!
An early rendering of a hypothetical Fuller Road station back from 2012 showed something similar from the street level. Is this what we should expect? Is this attractive? Is this what a train station should even look like? Nothing says trains like…parked cars!
The design alternatives for Depot Street include repurposing of the historic Michigan Central Railroad depot (now the Gandy Dancer restaurant) as well as the station building above and just north of the railroad tracks. I personally have a modest preference for the look of Design Alternative 2A, where the station above the tracks allows for pedestrian and transit access from both the Broadway Bridge and Depot Street.
Mayor Taylor has indicated that the level of service (i.e. traffic delay) with increased rail service at the Depot Street location would be unacceptable without adding lanes to the Broadway Bridge and Depot Street. These findings have not been released to the public. I’m sure there are engineering challenges at both locations. Moreover, a progressive, environmentally conscious city like Ann Arbor should be eschewing the car-centric LOS as a determinative metric for what makes a good or bad project and instead emphasizing other long-lasting community benefits.
A Two-Station Solution?
With the urban activity of downtown and Kerrytown and potential developments under consideration at the nearby DTE and Lower Town sites, a Depot Street station with increased rail service can serve as an anchor or binding agent to this chain of highly productive, transit-friendly areas of the city.
A comprehensive solution could involve a well-planned two-station arrangement:
- A “gateway” rail station at Depot – a new station based on the design alternatives in the city’s study if funds are available, or planned incremental improvements over time to the current station to accommodate increased rail service. This would serve intercity service and future commuter rail service.
- A simple commuter rail platform at Fuller, with limited or no parking, and minimal or no intrusion into parkland. Integrate with the planned Connector station at that location to enhance direct access to UM Medical Center and connections to other campus areas, with construction taking place ideally if and when the Connector station is built and after start of commuter rail service. Multiple closely located commuter rail stations are used in other cities, including Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Orlando, and Fort Worth, to serve different markets and connections.
- Revamping Fuller Park into an actual park in coordination with Connector station construction. This could help build community support for the rail projects, especially among Townies who object to repurposing parkland(-in-name-only) at Fuller. Alternatively, development could be considered here, though I suspect it would be difficult to get community support for it. Surely, either of these options is a better use for the community than a huge parking lot.
- Developments in Lower Town and the DTE site that are integrated well with the Depot station and the adjacent street network to invigorate the area and make it friendly for all users, not just motorists.
Funding all of this – the construction and the long-term maintenance – remains an open question and an issue I hope to get to in a future post. In the meantime, Vivienne has started to pose a few questions. We now (still) wait for the FRA’s decision.