Ann Arbor officials want to let voters decide if city should build new Amtrak train station
Photo courtesy of city of Ann Arbor
But whether the resolution will pass is yet to be determined — it involves taking up to $550,000 from the city's general fund cash reserves for the next phase of the project.
Critics have been calling for a public vote on the so-called Fuller Road Station project — now called Ann Arbor Station — since shortly after it first came to City Council a few years ago.
That's because the city's preferred site for Ann Arbor Station is the footprint of a surface parking lot that's technically a piece of city-owned parkland in front of the University of Michigan Hospital on Fuller Road, and the city's charter requires a public vote for any sale of parkland.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The resolution was added to the agenda Friday afternoon and already has multiple co-sponsors, including Mayor John Hieftje and Council Members Sabra Briere and Marcia Higgins.
Taylor believes the project is too important to let politics get in the way. He said it seems a major focus of the opposition has been the absence of a public vote, not the merits of the project.
"Commuter rail and expanded Amtrak service are too important to Ann Arbor's future to let some folks play politics," he said. "It’s not required, but when the fiscal and design plan is ready, we'll put it to a popular vote. People will see for themselves the economic, environmental and quality-of-life benefits."
Taylor added, "It will pass in a landslide."
Taylor believes a public vote isn't required because there's technically no sale of parkland, but he's hopeful putting the issue on the ballot can help settle the issue once and for all, and the city then can move forward on a new station to improve the existing Amtrak intercity passenger rail service.
This is the second time Taylor has proposed letting voters have direct say on a controversial issue that's nagged the council. He did the same with the public art tax that's on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Taylor said it's unknown at this point when the City Council might put the question of a new Amtrak station to voters, but he said 2014 is not an irrational estimate.
The resolution states the City Council will set a date by which the city will submit the question to voters "at or before the completion of a final design."
The Federal Railroad Administration has awarded the city a $2.8 million high-speed rail grant for conceptual planning, environmental documentation and preliminary engineering related to Ann Arbor Station. The completion of those tasks will allow for future final design and construction of an improved intercity passenger rail station on the busiest stop between Detroit and Chicago.
The city, working with the Michigan Department of Transportation, still needs approvals regarding environmental impact and site selection from the FRA for the project to go forward. Taylor said he understands the FRA's environmental and site determination will take at least 12 months.
"Then we'll need to complete preliminary engineering to determine what the structure will actually entail, then we'll need to finalize financial plans, then we'll take it to a vote," he said, adding the design and financial details will be made available for public review prior to the vote.
The resolution calls for a budget amendment to provide a local match for the $2.8 million in federal high-speed rail funding the city was awarded, transferring $550,000 from the general fund's cash reserves to fund the next phase of work on Ann Arbor Station.
It also would direct the city administrator to seek alternative funding for $300,000 of the $550,000 local match from other eligible local partners — such as the University of Michigan or the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority — that might be interested in sharing the cost.
The city previously thought an in-kind local match from expenditures already made going back to fiscal year 2009-10 would cover the city's share.
According to the resolution on Monday's agenda, the FRA recently notified the city that arrangement was disallowed due to the prior work no longer being recognized as timely for environmental review processes administered under the National Environmental Policy Act.
City officials note the FRA has advised the city it continues to support improved rail system access in Ann Arbor and has committed federal funding to help plan Ann Arbor Station.
A grass-roots citizens group called ProtectA2Parks released a white paper on Friday that outlines its arguments against building a new train station on Fuller Road. The group pointed out the city's 2012-13 budget already included $307,781 as a local match for the $2.8 million federal grant.
The $307,781 was for items the city thought would serve as a local match, but city officials are now learning they will not serve as a match, so the $550,000 is on top of the budgeted amount.
ProtectA2Parks supports consideration by the city of retaining the site of the current Amtrak station on Depot Street for a train station, and the white paper presents arguments in support of that position.
"It is the position of the group that the existing site can be improved to adequately meet the project's need and purpose," the group said in a press release.
While the mayor has suggested that other sites in the city might serve to mitigate the loss of parkland along Fuller Road, the group argues Fuller Park is unique in many ways.
The resolution on Monday's agenda and accompanying staff memo from Eli Cooper, the city's transportation program manager, don't mention Fuller Road.
The move away from the name "Fuller Road Station" comes as city officials go through a required analysis of alternative sites, including that of the current Amtrak station. However, city officials remain confident a close evaluation will prove the Fuller Road site is preferred, and they continue to argue there are too many logistical hurdles on Depot Street.
City officials also believe the name "Ann Arbor Station" will help put the project on the map for future federal funding, since "Fuller Road" probably doesn't mean much to people in Washington, D.C.
Even though what city officials have in mind isn't technically a sale of land and they argue no green space is being lost, park advocates argue it would be a permanent repurposing of parkland if the train station is built on Fuller Road. Hieftje and his allies are still lobbying for building on the Fuller Road site, and he points out federal rules would require mitigation for the loss of parkland.
"So they may say that's fine that a train station go here, but we'll have to mitigate and create a new park somewhere else," he said in a recent interview, pointing out the city hopes to create parks at 721 N. Main, 415 W. Washington and along the Huron River on the old MichCon site.
The resolution on Monday's agenda calls for a thorough public participation process to be conducted as part of the planning phase for Ann Arbor Station.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.