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Posted on Wed, Mar 10, 2010 : 8:23 p.m.

Alternative transportation experts pitch million-dollar options for University of Michigan

By Nathan Bomey


Bombardier on Wednesday night outlined a conceptual route for a monorail system for Ann Arbor with stations that would look similar to this one.

Photo courtesy of Bombardier

Alternative transportation options pitched Wednesday night to the University of Michigan ranged wildly in price and technology.

The transit systems described by a variety of experts included monorails, aerial rail systems, personal rapid transit systems and advanced bus systems. They ranged in price from tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars. 

One proposal - outlined by a U-M engineering class - pitched a $434 million monorail system that would connect the university's central, medical and north campuses. That's more than four times the price U-M paid last year to acquire the 174-acre ex-Pfizer site, a moment described as a catalyst in the university's decision to explore new transit options.

To be fair, though, several other systems proposed by transit experts were much less expensive.

“The technology is out there to meet your needs,” said Jim Spakauskas, director of sales and business development for transportation equipment manufacturer Bombardier. “The real focus is to just determine what those needs are. Once you can adequately determine those needs, you can always find a technology to match and suit those needs.”

U-M hosted the forum to begin the process of exploring better ways of connecting the university’s disconnected real estate.

President Mary Sue Coleman, who last fall announced plans to study future transportation options, attended the entire 2.5-hour forum Tuesday night but did not discuss the proposals.

The panelists included transit leaders and business executives from transportation networks throughout the country. They offered a variety of proposals, some rough sketches and others specific to Ann Arbor’s needs.

But Jim Kosteva, U-M’s director of community relations, emphasized that the university is still studying options and is not ready to consider specific proposals.

“It is well down the road before we would find ourselves potentially in that realm,” he said.

Still, the panelists offered a glimpse of the types of options U-M could pursue. Highlights from the presentations:

-- Spakauskas pitched a “conceptual route” for an aerial monorail system that would connect U-M’s three campuses and athletic facilities on a 7-mile track. It would use Bombardier’s low-noise, driverless trains. Spakauskas didn’t offer a cost estimate.

-- Randy Woolwine, vice president of sales for alternative transporation equipment maker Doppelmayr, said his firm offers gondolas, reversible trams, funitels and other systems. He said systems range in route size from 1,000 feet to 5.5 miles, can cost between $7 million and $40 million and carry 3,000 people an hour each way.

-- Chris Perkins, chairman of Unimodal Systems, described a “personal monorail” network that allows users to specify their destination when boarding. “You’d be able to go anywhere on the network nonstop,” he said.

Other experts, including leaders from Minneapolis Light Rail and West Virginia University’s personal rapid transit system, offered advice for U-M as it develops a future transportation strategy.

Hugh Kierig, WVU’s director of transportation and parking, encouraged U-M to construct a system that’s flexible and friendly to technology upgrades. WVU’s 35-year-old system is an “icon” of the campus, he said, but it’s also showing its age.

“We were not able to keep up with technological changes,” he said. “That has been a significant barrier in our ability to continue to provide reliable service.”

Nonetheless, Kierig said a rapid transit system can be a marketing tool.

WVU’s system “is a real integral part of the transportation system in our community and it is certainly an icon of the university,” he said. “There isn’t one marketing bit of information that’s not issued by the university that does not have the PRT on it someplace.”

Kosteva said the university plans to collaborate with the city of Ann Arbor and other groups on a prospective plan.

“I think it’s abundantly clear that we have a lot of lessons to learn,” he said.

Funding the development of a new transportation network could present the greatest obstacle, even for the cash-rich university.

U-M engineering professor Patrick Spicer delivered a presentation detailing a monorail proposal by his class of engineering students. His class believes that federal dollars could provide up to half the funding needed for a major transit project.

But Peter Allen, an Ann Arbor real estate developer and mass transit activist, said he doubts that the government would open its pocketbook to fund U-M’s new system. He believes that to fund the system, the university will need to pursue a tax increment financing plan in cooperation with Ann Arbor.

Contact’s Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or or follow him on Twitter. You can also subscribe to Business Review's weekly e-newsletter or the upcoming breaking business news e-newsletter.


Dale R. Leslie

Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 5:42 p.m.

Before the new Mott Hospital is completed and staffed, the subject of "parking" had best be put at the top of the agenda. The building is land-locked and the current parking availability is stretched to the max.


Fri, Mar 12, 2010 : 4:42 p.m.

@Spinelli - I wouldn't hitch your tubular train to Cheeks-Kilpatrick's engine... she is rapidly becoming political plutonium, and is under investigation for one thing or another that could put her in a nice, cozy, jail cell- maybe next to her clueless son, if he doesn't get squared-away pretty soon! Not that this silliness is likely to gain any political traction anyway - particularly after we do a regieme-change at city hall come next election.

Macabre Sunset

Fri, Mar 12, 2010 : 2:20 p.m.

Yeah, it's exciting. But the lack of private investment and a bankrupt state government makes it a no-win proposal. This Tubular Rail thing, though? OMG, the entire clown college must be visiting Ann Arbor with the hopes of hood-winking the idiots at City Hall. Spinelli's link is a 404, but add an r and it works. First, this: Tubular Rail, Inc. is a Texas corporation, headquartered in Houston. A Subchapter C corporation, it is authorized by its Charter to issue 75,000,000 shares of $.001 par value common stock. In other words, this "company" has so much momentum that it authorized a public offering worth $75,000. Wow! That will almost pay for a tiny piece of the initial surveying required to make an intelligent bid. In the meantime, they propose this space-age concept that has never been put in practice. Lots of promises, but completely experimental. And the cost doesn't include handling the traffic mess elevated platforms would make all over downtown. Ann Arbor is becoming a magnet for every Elmer Gantry of the mass transportation world.


Fri, Mar 12, 2010 : 8:03 a.m.

For the love of Pete - it was an informational session about transit that must keep up with the environmental and social needs of our extended community - a community, BTW, that needs to attract & retain good workers and folks. 'Red' Socialism? Mixed nuts? It sure is true what they say of opinion owners.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 11:13 p.m.

@RUKidding - Imagine how much more congested the Fuller corridor will be if Hizzoner and the city hall brain-trust build the so-called Fuller Transit station! Traffic will gridlock for HOURS every day!


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 7:54 p.m.

This is just more and more outrageous. The way U of M chucks such enormous amounts of money at the biggest most ridiculous projects HAS to be approaching criminal. Is this the type of thing we just have to stand by and watch, or is there a way to stop things like this and that boneheaded Fuller Transit Station?

Phillip Farber

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 7:14 p.m.

I have to echo the other comments making the point that it's hard to see how such a system would be superior to an expanded high-tech bus system. If there are additional benefits, they seem marginal and highly subject to diminishing returns. What is it worth to obtain these marginal benefits? The University is a public institution whose finances depend on the health of the Michigan economy. The prospects for that economy are not bright in the near to medium term. I frankly don't see how this system could be financed.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 4:47 p.m.

Unnecessary and silly... the University clearly has more money than sense if it is even remotely considering this expensive foolishness. Fuller is a bottleneck though, and the enhanced bus system/dedicated bus road link between Med Campus and North Campus might be useful for a fraction of the cost of these boondoggles. If you want an amusement ride, go to Cedar Point!


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 1:58 p.m.

We all saw what the monorail did to Sprinfield in the Simpson's. But seriously this would only benefit UofM. Ann Arbor shouldn't get involved with this program. UofM has survived a very long time without one, I think it'll do just fine for the next 150 years without it.

Regular Voter

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 1:42 p.m.

Hilarious! Some Onion writer is going to steal this story and win a big prize. Why not let fearless posters, lunatics and mixed nuts run the asylum for a while? Look where the serious folks have gotten us. Thank you for the funnies, this may not be raising the level of debate, but in only one year has topped the Ann Arbor News for entertainment. Laughter is good for the health.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 1:01 p.m.

Kafkaland: I lived on North Campus (Northwood 4) 20 years ago and had no trouble with the bus system, taking classes on the main campus and working downtown. mw: I agree with you, the focus should be on improving the bus system. North campus buses could even avoid "the bottle neck" at Fuller and Medical Center if they considered a buses only "back door" entrance by building a new road just north of the helicopter pad at Arboretum/Nichols north across the tracks (at grade crossing), across the river and then right across Fuller Field to Fuller road. In addition to buses, the crossing would be available to walkers and bikers who would no longer be forced through "the bottle neck" at Fuller and Medical Center. It would also provide walkers much better access to the Arb as well. UM is adding to "the bottleneck" with the new Fuller Station development. Bringing more cars to Fuller Rd only adds to the problem.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 12:49 p.m.

I'm not certain this will ever get done, and I'm concerned about the U asking for tax money to solve its own problems. But the mayor has expressed an interest in one of those personal monorail systems to shuttle him between his office, the bathroom and his gilded underground parking space (complete with German artwork) at the new City Hall.

Captain Magnificent

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 12:27 p.m.

I'm shocked and dismayed that nobody thought to include the Lincoln Consolidated School District. They began exploring a monorail back in December and surely have a lot of insight to lend to this upstart group. That aside, I think a Monorail is the way to go. You save a ton of money on track expenditure over an outdated "train"- it's literally 1/2 the cost for the rail AND for the rail grease. Trains are outdated- Monorails are the way of the future. I used this comparison in another article so please excuse me if you've read it before- I'm repeating it here because it's especially pertinent to this discussion: If they're wise and forward-thinking they'll go the route of the Lincoln Consolidated School District and put in a Monorail, not one of those old fashioned trains. Who needs two rails when you can get by just as fine with one? It's like all those old fashioned idiots who still ride bikes... sure, they work OK, but who needs TWO wheels? I get by just fine on my unicycle and I save half of the cost of tire maintenance! While those bike bozos are busy pumping air into their second tire I'm already zooming down the road- AND JUGGLING as I go! Let's see you do THAT on a "bike"! I think that's the perfect analogy for a train and a monorail... sure, a train will get you there, but can you JUGGLE while you're riding on it? I THINK NOT!


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 12:22 p.m.

I think a project like this has major advantages for the U, the city and many businesses in the area. Imagine a monorail where people from outside the area come to town and goto downtown or university area shops. Imagine a world where art fair, a footbasll game or other event doesnt paralyze the city for a time. An art fair attendee could park at say Pfizer, and be shuttled into the art fair area. A stop could be in between Crisler and the Big House. Maybe a stop at Yost, the Union, the dorms, and maybe head all the way down to Briarwood. Imagine it running 24 hours a day. I think it would make the University and city better for biusiness, residents, students and staff. If it gets rid of traffic, and some of the parking issues in the city it will be a major success


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 11:23 a.m.

Interesting, but for the "experts" are largely (not exclusively) corporate salespersons pushing particular systems. Or university types who would benefit professionally from managing such a big, prominent project. It's really fun and professionally advantageous to think big if you're not spending you own money. What problem, exactly, are we trying to solve that isn't already being solved by the UM bus system that runs between the central, medical, and north campuses? Or is the problem that the bus system works just fine but is boring rather than shiny, new & really expensive? I just checked on google maps, and it's only 7/10 mile from the corner of Medical Center drive and Fuller (medical campus exit) to Fuller and Bonisteel (north campus entrance). That's the only stretch of the route from central-medical-north campus that isn't actually on campus itself. If traffic on that short stretch of Fuller is really a big problem slowing down the buses, then put in a dedicated, grade-separated bus lane and call it a day.

Steve the Wookiee

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 11:23 a.m.

@ Rizzle, Dan and Alan Benard - Thank you so much! Well played.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 11:13 a.m.

@blahblahblah: The situation now is very different from when Pfizer was occupying the site: Now we expect students who take classes on Central Campus to work in research labs up there, we expect faculty whose labs are at NCRC to teach on Central Campus or the Medical School, be accessible to students and colleagues all over campus, etc. None of that happened when Pfizer was occupying the site. Besides, transportation on Campus, in particular between Cental and North Campus has long been a bottleneck, and the acquisition of NCRC provides finally the impetus to do something about it.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 11:09 a.m.

My grandparents had an outhouse out back when they were younger. How dare someone put a sewer system in! We don't need progress!


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 11:01 a.m.

It's more of a Shelbyville idea...


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 10:43 a.m.

Wait a The former 2,500 or so Pfizer employees had no problem getting around town. Why do the new inhabitants need such special tranportation accommodations? UM and other public employees already directly benefit from our tax dollars. Now we may be called upon to subsidize a transportation plan that benefits a select few???

Alan Benard

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 10:32 a.m. Monorail! Everybody loves 'em!


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 9:59 a.m.


Chuck Warpehoski

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 9:58 a.m.

I hope this effort goes beyond just connecting the campuses to working with the town to address the whole community's transportation needs. The advantage of a fixed-rail system is that it lets potential investors know that there will be traffic by the stops, that's why real estate values by subway, lightrail, etc. go up in a way that values by bus stops don't. IF it is done well, it could also help answer some of the local questions about where increased density belongs (and by extension, where it does not). That's not to say I'm sold on a fixed-rail system, but there are real advantages to it that in4mation didn't address.

Peter Muller

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 9:48 a.m.

Personal rapid transit (PRT) can be quite difficult to fully understand. There are many different vendors offering a wide range of systems, each with differing characteristics and capabilities. You can learn more about PRT by visiting We are the only firm of professional engineers and planners specializing in PRT. We are independent of all PRT vendors.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 9:29 a.m.

Rizzle FTW! By gum it put them on the map!


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 9:27 a.m.

I think its great that the region is thinking long-term about public transportation. However, rail just doesnt make sense for a community as small and relatively diffuse as ours. AATA is a pretty good system. It seems it would make more sense to invest in expanding the bus system. Increase frequency, especially at night, add more routesspecifically, more routes that dont merely go to and from downtown. Maybe invest in some improvements such as more detailed signage, more covered stops, a real-time system to see bus locations on each route, better technology to more easily coordinate with the UM system. Rail is good for moving large numbers of people between very specific places. That just doesnt make sense for the Ann Arbor area. Use the money to improve the system weve got, it will cost less and be a much better investment. The city should actively seek to collaborate with the U in this regard, both logistically and in terms of technological advancements. Of course, it wont do much good if we continue to build more and more parking lots at subsidized rates. Downtown can't handle a lot more traffic as it is.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 9:26 a.m.

@TopCat: The costs are substantial, but in the same ballpark as the overhaul of the athletic facilities or the construction of the Life Science Institute. That's not out of range for an infrastructure investment that's good for thirty to fifty years, and benefits actually many more people.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 9:24 a.m.

I'm a big fan of the monorail. Just look at the huge successes in towns like Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook. I call the big one "Bitey".

Top Cat

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 9:01 a.m.

This is pure fantasy. This meeting would have been more productive if they just showed a few episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine. There is no money to build or maintain this.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 8:36 a.m.

Let's keep thinking about this for awhile. Mass transit is cheaper than parking and can be more convenient than driving. How many people will need to commute between campuses? If the goal is simply to connect the two campuses, then why not an electric trolley system? A monorail or gondola sound both expensive to build and ride - fun, though. As a townie, I might make an annual excursion on one of these rides instead of heading down to Cedar Point. Any system built should certainly do more than connect two campuses - at least head over to the freeways for park and ride options or connections to bus stations, like the Megabus. How come there was no mention of hot air balloons, underground tunnels with moving sidewalks, giant catapults, or horse-drawn carriages? Have we considered buying a few more buses and running them more frequently and later at night? Why not build a heated, indoor bus waiting stations at several points at the various campuses, with human attendants present?

Steve Hendel

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 8:30 a.m.

Interesting, but for the "experts" are largely (not exclusively) corporate salespersons pushing particular systems. That doesn't invalidate their observations, but it should be kept in mind. It is great to 'think big,' but---especially in tough economic times---we also need people who think small; how do we fix that bridge which is crumbling, what do we do about that dam that might give way some day, etc. Not nearly as flashy as intermodal transit stations or monorails, but nevertheless at least as important.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 8:22 a.m.

@kafkaland - which airport? If you mean the Ann Arbor airport, it makes sense. It also makes sense to go ahead with the proposed runway safety extension.

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 8:04 a.m.

"Funding the development of a new transportation network could present the greatest obstacle, even for the cash-rich university...the university will need to pursue a tax increment financing plan in cooperation with Ann Arbor." A "tax increment financing plan"? Which I assume needs to be in cooperation with the city because the "cash rich" University has no power to tax? The "cash rich" University who owns large chunks of property around town for which they pay no taxes wants the tax payers to pay for a system to connect their large chunks of divergent land? I've never actually used "hubris" in a sentence before, hopefully somewhere above my 9th grade English teacher Miss Cooper is smiling down upon me. She sure didn't back in 9th grade.


Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 7:39 a.m.

I'd encourage everyone to think big. This will be a defining feature for UM and A2 for maybe the next 50 years. And if UM wants to remain a leader in transportation research, we better show what we can do. Here is my admittedly not fully thought-out proposal. Start the monorail (or whatever) with a Park and Ride facility at the Pfizer Campus, stops at North Campus, the new Transit Center at the Hospital with light rail connection to the airport, Med School, Central Campus, Athletic Facilities, and extend it to Briarwood Mall / Wolverine Tower with another P&R facility. Later, build another leg from the Med School stop along Huron Street to Main Street, and eventually out to Westgate with a P&R facility there, or if that's not possible, out at Zeeb Road. This will make getting to most significant places in A2 without a car a breeze, and visitors can leave theirs outside as well or better yet, come by rail in the first place.

The Picker

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 7:09 a.m.

Is this really necessary?