New University of Michigan campus connections could transform Ann Arbor transportation
The University of Michigan is on the cusp of transforming Ann Arbor’s transportation network.
Creating more efficient transportation options from U-M’s North Campus, which now includes the 174-acre ex-Pfizer site, to its Central Campus and medical facilities, rose to a top priority this week as part of a new university-driven transportation initiative.
The move could fundamentally alter the city’s transit infrastructure: All options are on the table, officials said, which could mean intra-city rail or trolleys.
U-M President Mary Sue Coleman signaled Oct. 5 in her “State of the University” speech that the university would jump into the local transportation mix - beyond an existing proposal to create a transit station at Fuller Road near the hospital.
The university’s involvement promises to add a sense of legitimacy, if also a layer of political complexity, to the region’s transportation ambitions.
“We are completely intertwined as communities, so it’s going to be very important for us to plan together,” Coleman told AnnArbor.com. “I’m excited about our trying to do a better job on the North Campus-Central Campus connection. Clearly that has impacts on the city and the state, so we want to involve everybody in that discussion as we get some ideas for what we might do.”
The university plans to coalesce a network of transportation experts and local leaders at a forum in early 2010 to discuss "alternative transportation" options for connecting people from North Campus to Central Campus and the Medical Center. Details about the forum will be released at a later date.
Completing the approximately two-mile trip from North Campus to Central Campus can take 15 minutes to 30 minutes depending on traffic, parking issues and specific destination. The university has some 40,000 students and 5,000 faculty - including roughly 10,000 people at North Campus.
As the university considers the implications of its $108 million acquisition in June of Pfizer’s 2 million square feet of facilities, transportation is emerging as a central challenge. The university plans to add 2,000 to 3,000 employees at the ex-Pfizer site, now called North Campus Research Complex, over the next 10 years.
Coleman said the Pfizer site acquisition was a catalyst in the university’s decision to consider new transportation options.
For now, it's hard for a researcher, student or business executive to travel from North Campus to Central Campus quickly. Bus, car or bicycle are the best options.
“It takes too much time,” said Peter Allen, a local real estate developer and an emerging transportation activist. “It has to be quick, easy and inviting to go back and forth twice a day. You can do that with a trolley, you can do that with a tram. And those two modes are much more sexy than a dedicated bus.”
The university isn’t ruling anything out. Not even new rail connecting North Campus to Central Campus.
“No. That’s not out of the mix,” said Stephen Forrest, U-M’s vice president for research. “I don’t think anything at this point is out of the mix.”
A potential North-Campus-to-Central-Campus transportation initiative comes as the university is coordinating with the city of Ann Arbor on a separate project involving a proposed transit station at Fuller Road in the shadow of the U-M hospital complex.
That proposal - in planning stages right now - would likely cost $50 million to $60 million. It aims to create a 5-story parking garage, 900-space bicycle parking storage area, bus boarding stations and Amtrak train platforms. A commuter rail line from Ann Arbor to Detroit, which will be completed in late 2010, would travel through the Fuller Road site to Amtrak’s existing location behind the Gandy Dancer on Depot Street near downtown.
Still, it’s unclear whether the proposed Fuller Road transit station would play a role in the improved North-Campus-to-Central-Campus transportation initiative envisioned by the university.
“You have to interconnect all these things to make it work,” Forrest said. “We have to see what the proposals are and then decide how to actually make them happen.”
It’s too early to tell whether the university would open its checkbook to spark investment in new transportation infrastructure. City cooperation presumably would be imperative to a major project of any kind.
City administrator Roger Fraser and transportation program manager Eli Cooper did not respond to requests seeking comment.
The region’s leading transit organization, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, likely would play an instrumental role in discussions.
Mary Stasiak, manager of community relations for AATA, acknowledged a need for additional transportation services between North Campus and Central Campus.
Drivers traveled 8.68 million miles in the city of Ann Arbor in 2005, up about 4 percent from 2003, according to city statistics. AATA reported 6.13 million bus rides in the 2008 fiscal year, up about a million in three years.
“We’re obviously interested in looking at new options and pursuing whatever opportunities there are for improving transportation along the corridor,” Stasiak said. “We are really looking forward to participating in these discussions.”
Local business officials and economic development leaders said they’re encouraged to see the university and city collaborating on the intermodal transit project.
Executives, particularly in Ann Arbor’s technology sector, said that recruiting young professionals would remain difficult without additional transportation options such as commuter rail and high-speed rail.
“Study after study has shown us that the fastest-growing areas are those that are desirable for younger talent to stay or to relocate. And time and time again, surveys and anecdotally we’re being told that one of the most desirable assets is a public transportation system that goes beyond buses,” said Elizabeth Parkinson, director of marketing and public relations for Ann Arbor SPARK.
“I think it could be huge for companies that we could attract to that area using the NCRC as an anchor. Having modern public transportation that would connect the northern part of Ann Arbor to the downtown area would absolutely be” advantageous.
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