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Posted on Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 10:56 a.m.

SEMCOG officials say $40 million to $50 million still needed for Ann Arbor-to-Detroit rail project

By Ryan J. Stanton

A long-anticipated commuter rail project linking Ann Arbor and Detroit — with three stops in between — is $40 million to $50 million short of happening, SEMCOG officials said this morning.

SEMCOG hosted a meeting of its Ann Arbor-to-Detroit Steering Committee inside its offices in downtown Detroit, offering an update on the east-west commuter rail project.


Washtenaw County Commissioner Jeff Irwin is one of several officials who have expressed disappointment that the rail project is delayed.

Tom Perkins | For

Addressing a crowd of government officials from throughout the region, Carmine Palombo, director of transportation planning for SEMCOG, said the primary goal has been and continues to be getting an increase in the state's gas tax.

He said a modest increase in the gas tax — along with increases in vehicle registrations and other fees — could raise $1 billion annually for road and transit projects in Michigan, and $100 million of that could go to projects like the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit rail line.

"It needs to be approved," he said. "We need to continue to keep banging that drum because I will tell you that without additional funding, base funding, none of these projects has any sustainability to them. The gas tax is yielding fewer and fewer dollars every year."

Palombo said SEMCOG has determined it needs about $80 million for the project. He said about $33 million already has been spent using funds from MDOT and other sources.

In addition to an increase in the state's gas tax, SEMCOG still is holding out hope for federal funding. Palombo said SEMCOG plans to go after part of a new $2.5 billion pot of money coming from the Federal Railroad Administration in the near future. There also is an estimated $600 million available in a second round of federal TIGER grant money that SEMCOG has its eyes on.

SEMCOG officials recently missed out on securing high-speed rail stimulus money in a round of federal grants. That has caused some officials — including in Washtenaw County — to question SEMCOG's management of the project and whether it will ever happen.

"The project is far from dead," Palombo said. "The project is moving forward. In fact, in many ways, many of the boring pieces of the project actually have been completed, and we're getting to the point where some of the fun is about to begin."

A $100 million federal transportation funding earmark for the project was made in 2005, but the route's estimated cost-per-rider of more than $70 remains too high to qualify for the money. Palombo said communities that have been successful in securing transit capital funds have costs between $20 and $25 because they are adding onto existing systems.

"It has nothing to do with the fact that we don't have a good project," Palombo said, adding that "new starts" have a disadvantage because their costs naturally are higher.

Palombo said the goal remains to establish a demonstration service to allow SEMCOG to obtain the data it needs to go back and make a case to the federal government. SEMCOG wants to establish at least four daily roundtrips between Ann Arbor and Detroit and three on the weekends. Trains would stop in Ypsilanti, at the Detroit Metro Airport and in Dearborn.

Palombo said the fact that such service won't happen by SEMCOG's previously stated Oct. 25 target date is only a temporary setback.

Tim Hoeffner, administrator of MDOT's Office of High-Speed Rail and Innovative Project Advancement, said efforts are under way to lease up to eight locomotives that would pull the trains. The hope is to have contracts for that under way in the next four to six weeks.

Palombo said work also is being done to refurbish a set of double-decker rail cars. He said there are eight cab cars and 16 coaches in all. They're being outfitted with new seats, floors, improved windows, and widened doors for handicapped accessibility.

Hoeffner said a lot of thought has gone into modernizing the passenger cars, from the color scheme to the type of fabric used on seats. He said MDOT and SEMCOG want to put their best foot forward for the demonstration project. He said the cars are being wired for Wi-Fi capability, though that service likely won't be available immediately.

Palombo said a lot of time has been spent talking to partners from the railroad industry — Norfolk Southern, Canadian National and Conrail, which own the tracks, and Amtrak, which would be contracted to operate the service. He said deals are in place but planning continues to identify the safest way to operate freight and passenger cars on the same tracks.

"We have to do an analysis to make sure that our passenger trains and their freight trains don't want to be in the same place at the same time — that's a problem," he said. "We have to build, in some instances, additional track off to the side so we can get one train off to let another train go on."

Palombo said the project is now being planned in three phases. The first includes having trains run during special events starting this fall, the second phase includes the four roundtrips per day, and the third phase — if the expected demand is there — includes running as many as 8 to 15 roundtrips per day. Palombo said SEMCOG has been talking to the railroad companies to plan the improvements needed in each of those cases.

Palombo said there are talks of having trains run from Ann Arbor to Detroit for the Thanksgiving Day parade in Detroit in November, a University of Michigan hockey game in December, and possibly one or more U-M football games. He also mentioned possible trips for events at the Henry Ford Museum, Detroit Lions games, the Pizza Bowl, the Auto Show in January and the Ann Arbor Art Fairs in summer of 2011.

Palombo said MDOT, which has stepped up "big time," is not going to run the system forever. In the long term, he said, a regional transit authority is needed as the system grows and possibly links with Jackson to the west, Pontiac to the north, Monroe and Toledo to the south and Mount Clemens to the east.

"This is the first piece of a system," he said of the proposed Ann Arbor-to-Detroit link. "That's how this needs to be looked at."

Ryan J. Stanton covers government for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.


Ming Bucibei

Thu, Apr 29, 2010 : 11:24 a.m.

delete semcog delete all of the idiotic rail pojects, wally & aa-det & trollies etc no new taxes the country and state are in a recession or did you fools not notice?? ming bucibei


Wed, Apr 28, 2010 : 8:58 p.m.

Very disappointing. Our rudderless region is always looking for the easy solution or just flat out clueless. Low quality, low service, refurbished rail cars running on some of the busiest freight lines in the country!? Sure. A pathetic system will simply close down after a few years at most and dimwits like Carl Levin and Stabenow can tell their Washington cronies that They Were Right - Michigan doesnt want or need mass transit - and gavel the money to some other region!! There are brilliant people in SouthEast Michigan - I know some of them, but MASS TRANSIT brings out the enthusiastic clueless and needy who want more. How can Michigan engineers design some of the most sophisticated machines in the world but lack the available talent to understand and promote regional mass transit?..and I'm NOT REFERRING TO TRAINS!! SEMCOG has a history of slogging through worthless "studies" where a $100,000 or so is spent retaining a worthless, inexperienced consultant and holding phony public meetings until the money is gone. Those in Michigan who 'get it', understand the real value of mass transit who try to educate the legislator are shouted down until they give up and move on to other things. The truth is that real mass transit is hard to plan, hard to explain to the public, hard to finance and hard to legislate. Ask the dozens of Successful Cities with thriving metro areas and millions world wide who enjoy this public amenity. With few exceptions, they faced the same challenges as Michigan but overcame them. Under our present disastrous leadership, this state has gotten comfortable with failure on a massive scale.


Wed, Apr 28, 2010 : 9:32 a.m.

The project is $40 to $50 million short "SEMCOG officials say". Well, what is it? The difference of $10 million is quite a bit of money. Who the hell is the engineer on this train?


Wed, Apr 28, 2010 : 8:18 a.m.

SonnyDog09 - if only they were as efficient as you claim. Remember last year when State St was repaved? If have a photo of 20 guys standing around while one or two are actually working. You can thank the unions. Give these jobs to private, non-union companies, and incentivize them with early completion bonuses/late completion penalties. This simple change would have a major, positive impact: projects would be done faster, cheaper, and better.


Wed, Apr 28, 2010 : 6:42 a.m.

We only need another $50 million. Let the 268 people that SEMCOG estimates will use the the AA-Detroit service pay the $186,000 each. Politicians do you ever look at cost vs rewards when you push these expensive projects? SEMCOG seems to think all will be well if only we raise taxes. For all of you that agree with higher taxes, my plan is for you to figure out your new tax bill and send a check for that amount to the Washtenaw County Road commission. Nobody really wants to do that do you.

Steve Hendel

Wed, Apr 28, 2010 : 5:39 a.m.

Can someone please explain to me why we continue to spend enormous sums on projects like WALLY or the AA-Detroit line BEFORE it is clear if and when funding will be available to complete and operate the project?

Anonymous Due to Bigotry

Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 7:32 p.m.

It's amazing how easy it is to scam the eco-hippies. If you're Al Gore or some rail construction company, all you have to do is claim that whatever you're doing is good for the environment and you can make millions and millions of dollars. The eco-hippies only think in terms of junk science, not real science or economics.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 5:58 p.m.

$40-$50 million. That's a million apiece for the 40 people who will use it. Just give them the million bucks and tell them to retire.

Jack Eaton

Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 5:24 p.m.

It is odd that the City administration spends so much time on trains. The Stadium bridges have been deteriorating for years. We have amassed $22 million - more than two years of road building revenue - but have again delayed the bridge project in hope of attracting state or federal money. Why didnt the administration seek the bridge funds years ago? Why have we amassed so much road funding when our roads are in such poor condition? Southeast Michigan needs to improve its mass transit systems, including rail service. Those improvements require planing and that planning should start with identifying funding. Instead, the City starts two rail projects without identifying the funding sources. The WALLY is $10 million short of what it needs to start. The Detroit Ann Arbor line is $40 million short. Those shortages are just to get the service started and run a demonstration period. Neither service has a dedicated operational funding source. Livingston County has expressed no interest in funding a service that will transport its residents to our town. Should we subsidize riders who have chosen not to live in Ann Arbor? Does that subsidy encourage sprawl? The City administration and AATA seem intent on funding the bus system with a new county-wide millage so that the City transportation millage can be re-purposed for trains. If a county-wide one mill tax will be used to replace the current 2 mill city tax, then the out-county service will not be as comprehensive as the in-town bus service. Will county tax payers support a millage that mostly subsidizes in-town service? Will city residents support the county-wide millage knowing that it will be in addition to the transportation millage already levied? Its time for local planners to recognize that scheming is different from planning.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 3:14 p.m.

Someone wake up our state legislature! Our state stands to lose hundreds of millions in federal road funding. That's our share of federal road funding we are losing because we lack the matching funds at the state level. The only way to quickly and fairly raise those matching funds is by raising the gas tax. If your against raising the gas tax then don't complain about the conditions of our roads and the repair bills for your car.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 2:58 p.m.

R.I.P. - along with Hizzoner the Mayor, and all his buddies on Council!

David Cahill

Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 2:10 p.m.

Requiescat In Pacem

scooter dog

Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 2:09 p.m.

Another money pit with endless costs to run and maintain it.It'll never happen.People will never ever give up their cars to ride a train.I don't care how much gas costs.Forget it,and why would anyone want to align themselves with D-town.There going to tear down all the buildings and make it a king sized farm.When will the circus end. Raising gas taxes won't happen either.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 2:02 p.m.

Those of you who think this project should just "die" are WAY too dependent on cars. Next time your car breaks down, leaves you stranded, costs you hundreds or thousands to repair, and you have to cancel a trip, skip work for a day, sit out in the cold for 5 hours waiting for AAA, etc...etc...etc...think of how nice it would've been to avoid all this agony (or at least be able to easily remedy it) by being able to take public transit. And if you're one who says "why should I have to pay higher taxes or fees when I'm not going to use the train"?? Well, that's just dumb. I pay taxes year after year, for example, into a public school system that I will never use. So why should I have to pay for this??? Well, the obvious answer is that it's better for our society if its people are educated. There are a million such examples that ALL of us could cite. And this is how I feel about the need for funding the expansion of public transportation, whether I use it or not. Better transit makes Michigan more attractive to economic development in all sectors, something our state desperately needs. The short-sighted commentary I read whenever these transit articles pop up amazes me. This is not about "Well who on earth would wanna take a train to Detroit???" This is about the long-term survival of our state. Open your minds a little, why don't you? Yes, this project is expensive. Yes, there will be setbacks. No, it won't happen overnight and miraculously fix everything. But it is worth the cost and effort, in my opinion. And if paying a few more cents a gallon, or a few more dollars a year in my car registration, helps make this all a reality, then sign me up.

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 1:32 p.m.

We have to get over our obsession with trains as the solution to our transportation needs. We just don't have the job densities or population densities to support them. It's a 19th Century solution to a 21st Century problem. The vast majority of us would face tripled commute times if we had to take the train to work. Instead of funding all sorts of boondoggles with our tax money, the government should focus on providing incentives to develop renewable sources of energy.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 1:13 p.m.

Can't we just buy Amtrak a couple more trains, maybe clean up some of the old unused sidings, and insist that there is a morning train from ARB to DET and a later evening train for a return trip? There's got to be someone to bribe...sorry...a department/corporation to fund, that takes care of the track scheduling.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 1 p.m.

let it die


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 12:46 p.m.

What I don't understand is why they want to raise the gas tax and the vehicle registration fees and use that money to pay for the trains? I can understand using those taxes to pay for roads, but not for trains. Tax the train riders to pay for the trains. Regarding more funding for roads, I have said on several other threads that the first thing that they could do is spend the money that they get today more efficiently. For example, instead of paying five people to stand around and watch one guy work, they could pay only three people to stand around and watch one guy work. They could then get more work done with the same amount of money. Every time that I drive through a road construction zone I see five guys standing around watching one guy work.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 12:35 p.m.

Agreed. *High five* Adam!


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 11:16 a.m.

@Adam. What you drive is besides the point. My apologies for making it the point of the convo. However your idea of a gas tax increase is now null. As a vehicle with lower fuel consumption would use less gas and thus pay less into this "Fix-the Roads" fund. I do agree that our roads are in need of repair. I would purpose that we add a 'tax' to the registration of Auto's with above average gross vehicle weight. As the heavier your car/truck/boat/van is the more wear and tear it imposes to the road surface.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 11:11 a.m.

Don't worry about it. Hieftje and Council will float a loan for it.

John Q

Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 10:53 a.m.

I second what Adam says. Road users should be responsible for paying for keeping up the roads. If the gas tax is the way that we fund it, the tax needs to be increased to cover the costs. What's the alternative?


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 10:46 a.m.

Please let this project die and stop wasting money.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 10:42 a.m.

The Federal Government has already said this is not a viable project. Why does it not die the death it deserves. I suspect it is because someone stands to make a lot of money and the politicians have been bought.


Tue, Apr 27, 2010 : 10:24 a.m.

@Adam. Increase the gas tax? Why dont we just post up a toll booth every ten miles and charge people? And just becasue you have a Prius does not mean everyone does. Thanks please play again. Tax is not the answer!