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Posted on Thu, Apr 1, 2010 : 4:09 p.m.

Washtenaw County officials question worth of investment in SEMCOG

By Ryan J. Stanton

Washtenaw County commissioners are questioning the worth of the county's $125,000 annual investment in SEMCOG after running into delays with the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter train project.

At an administrative briefing Wednesday, commissioners questioned whether the county should continue paying the annual membership fee to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.


Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith said he thinks SEMCOG needs a change in leadership and governance reform.

Ryan J. Stanton |

"Their failure to bring the demonstration project to fruition is sort of a punctuation mark on a number of frustrations that people have had locally about SEMCOG," said Jeff Irwin, D-11th District, calling the organization's failure to deliver the project on time a "colossal failure."

"Their failure to follow through on those promises certainly leave me scratching my head again," he said. "What is it that we gain from being part of this regional conversation and sending our dollars to promote that organization and their regional planning efforts if the planning that they're doing doesn't serve the interests of our citizens or the broader region in general?"

SEMCOG is a member organization made up of local governments in seven counties surrounding Metro Detroit. It acts as the unified voice for the region on issues related to transportation, the environment, community and economic development, and education.

The agency's leaders have been saying for months a daily commuter rail service linking Ann Arbor and Detroit would start later this year, but now it's been indefinitely delayed due to a shortage of funding. Agency leaders acknowledge they are tens of millions of dollars short of where they had hoped to be, mostly because federal funding didn't come through.

"We are as frustrated as anybody," said Paul Tait, SEMCOG's executive director. "We've been working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to make this a go and we've been inching closer, and when the feds did release some awards for high-speed rail, Michigan wasn't on the list. They were funding rail improvements to get around Chicago and rail down the middle of Florida and California and places like that."

SEMCOG still plans to do a demonstration project later this year, though it won't be the daily service that many expected. Trains between Ann Arbor and Detroit will run only for special events, such as the Thanksgiving Day parade in Detroit or University of Michigan football games in Ann Arbor.

Tait said project officials continue to work on getting train cars ready and making station improvements. He hopes to have one of the refurbished train cars on display at the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival in August.

"We're not abandoning this project at all," he said. "I think folks have taken the fact that we're not implementing when we promised as 'the project's dead,' and nothing's further from the truth."

Conan Smith, D-10th District, said he doesn't buy the excuse that federal money didn't come through. He said SEMCOG promised it could deliver on the project before there was a federal money to go after.

"This raises the question of 'What use is SEMCOG?' once again," he said at Wednesday's meeting. "Somebody's lying basically to keep our money."

Irwin said the county's frustrations with SEMCOG are deep-rooted and trace back several years.

"It really started with the realization that their demographic projections are geared toward pushing infrastructure investments away from established cities and toward urban sprawl," he said. "The way that they estimate growth in the seven-county region essentially starves our cities and causes really inefficient use of transportation resources."

Irwin said county officials have been holding out hope for years that SEMCOG could address that problem with a greater focus on transit.

Smith said one of the problems with SEMCOG is its governance model.

"There are a heck of a lot more townships, for example, than there are cities (in SEMCOG), so the inclination around infrastructure investments is to support that outward migration of resources, and that's not in the long-term sustainability interests of the region as a whole," he said.

"There is just a status-quo kind of approach to problem solving when it comes to transportation and infrastructure," he added. "I would say SEMCOG's actually pretty good when it comes to water quality work, and their work on community and economic development has been very strong. But their primary mission through the federal government is transportation, and we see the vast majority of their data and their investment decision-making heading toward a sprawl model as opposed to reinforcement of sustainable urban development."

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Commissioner Jeff Irwin also is questioning the county's investment in SEMCOG.

Tait called it a myth that SEMCOG promotes urban sprawl.

"Certainly we're not proposing or approving funding for roads that are out in the middle of nowhere that further support urban sprawl," he said. "That's never been true. It's a myth and frankly, it's not an accurate one. Despite the disappointment with us not being able to close the deal as fast as we want on Ann Arbor to Detroit, our policies are pretty consistent with where Washtenaw County and our communities in Washtenaw County want to go."

Commissioner Kristin Judge, D-7th District, said she began questioning the worth of SEMCOG in last year's county budget process.

"I said, 'Do we get $125,000 worth out of this?'" she said, adding county officials still are asking that question.

Smith said it may take a change of leadership at SEMCOG. He noted Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell, vice chairwoman of SEMCOG's executive committee, is in line to become chairwoman in two years, which would be a positive step for Washtenaw County.

Commissioners said at Wednesday's meeting the problem with pulling out of SEMCOG is that they want to support regionalism. And despite frustrations with SEMCOG, it does have its benefits — such as funding it helps bring to the region and data it provides regarding its communities, they said.

"But the vision that I think our communities share is not being shared by SEMCOG," Irwin said. "We have to decide: Do we continue to engage, continue to invest our citizens' scarce resources in this organization in hopes that the regional conversation can eventually be the rising tide that lifts all boats? Or do we sort of pull back those resources and invest them in a local solution to implement the good ideas that our communities share?

"Regionalism is good, but if it's a completely broken organization, is it really serving that interest?" he added.

Smith agreed that regional planning is important.

"But when the prioritization is the automobile and the widening of roads, and a signature project in the SEMCOG region ends up being expanding M-59 by another two or three lanes, which is already eight lanes wide with a half-mile setback, that over regional rail? The priorities are messed up," he said.

Tait, a resident of Ypsilanti, joined SEMCOG in 1972 and has been executive director since 1998. He said it would be a mistake for the county — his county — not to be a part of the regional dialogue around important issues.

"I think it would be very unfortunate because there are so many issues that we deal with," he said. "Beyond the frustrations of transit, all federal road money and transit money in the region has to be approved by elected officials working through SEMCOG and that includes the projects that (the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study) and the road commissions are putting forward.

"We are working on an economic development strategy for the region that does tie Washtenaw County in with the rest of the region," he added. "All of the data and information shows that Washtenaw County is increasingly connected with the rest of the region needs to be at the table."

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



Thu, Apr 8, 2010 : 7:51 a.m.

Having spent extensive periods in both Brussells & Singapore I fully understand and appreciate the value of good mass transit. However a long commute there is 15 munutes not 1.5 hours reguired to take train from AA and a bus to work site. That being said, we should not do projects with sever revenue shortfalls, just because we are a donor state. All levels of government seem to think all money is free money. There is no rational reason there should be a regional mass transit tax to make it possible for 268 people to commute by train. If Ann Arborites want mass transit so bad to prove if you build it they will come, why does AA not pass a mileage and build a subway system in AA?

Jeff Irwin

Wed, Apr 7, 2010 : 4:45 p.m.

Im thrilled that people are still discussing this on Outdoor: The annual subsidy required to support operations - assuming that the very low ridership estimates are correct - is $6.2M. Your $15M figure includes the "annualized capital costs" which in more successful regions are largely paid by the federal government (as much as 80/20). What happens now is that when we pay fuel taxes to Washington D.C., they send back roughly 95% of what we pay in road taxes and about 40% of what we pay in transit taxes. We are a massive donor state, partly because we can't seem to build a more balanced transportation network that includes a strong mass transit component. Of course, we are also a massive donor state because the Constitution gives additional Congressional power to lesser populated states (per the "Great Compromise"). JSA - I support this project because fixed rail projects have proven to build economies and vibrant cities where people want to live. Also, I believe in a balanced transportation system where the automobile is not the only way to get around. Not only is this type of service critical to the old, the young, the poor, the disabled and the drunk, it is a great way to more productively use the many hours of our lives we spend driving. Ihearta2 I dont think that the ridership numbers are reflective of the potential of this corridor. Also, I dont think that one-time capital costs should be considered in the same light as operating costs (per my comment above). The ridership numbers are very conservative and only rely upon commuter travel generated by major employers along the corridor. Of course, there will be some excursion, entertainment and airport riders in addition to small business travel. I know small business professionals who would use this service to open up their business in Detroit and they were not included in the surveys. Also, new systems in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas and Salt Lake City (to name a few) have outperformed ridership estimates and generated significant new transit oriented development. These developments have helped fund the same communities that subsidize the service costs. Of course, these cities are building new, public infrastructure and installing systems many times more costly and useful than this proposed service. Simply put, I believe in sustainability and efficiency (system-wide). It is my opinion that we currently spend billions of dollars on pavement without pause and that our government blithely subsidizes long commutes with multi-billion dollar highways that come with enormous maintenance costs. That willingness to abandon existing infrastructure and incentivize suburban sprawl is far more costly in the long term than investing in sensible, efficient systems. Currently, our taxes go to subsidize long auto commutes. Id like to see some balance.


Tue, Apr 6, 2010 : 2:14 p.m.

Jeff Irwin, quoting from outdoor6709: "Current cost of trip from AA to Detroit is $22 round trip. Current time is 68 minutes each way. Plus time to & from station. Ridership is projected at 268 a day. It appears this project will generate $1.5 million in revenues and cost $15.0 million to run." This is from the report link you supplied. Are you disputing the cost/time/ridership estimate? I don't see how it is SEMCOG's fault that they didn't deliver. Clearly the report unveiled a serious funding problem.


Mon, Apr 5, 2010 : 11:10 a.m.

I always wonder how the liberals supporting this stupid idea for a train plan to pay for it since it will never have the ridership that will let it pay for itself. Would one of the liberals supporting this boondoggle care to answer?


Mon, Apr 5, 2010 : 6:49 a.m.

Jeff, Thanks for web site. Current cost of trip from AA to Detroit is $22 round trip. Current time is 68 minutes each way. Plus time to & from station. Ridership is projected at 268 a day. It appears this project will generate $1.5 million in revenues and cost $15.0 million to run. No wonder this project is dead. A Better project would be Milan to AA or Brighton to AA. Only goverment would think this is a great idea.

Kristin Judge

Sat, Apr 3, 2010 : 7:49 p.m.

When reviewing the Board of Commissioners' budget last year, I saw that SEMCOG was a substantial part of our budget. I am getting more involved with SEMCOG this year to better understand the value they bring to the county and our residents. While I share some of the transportation concerns of my fellow commissioners, SEMCOG is a good partner for at least one of our departments. SEMCOG is a strong partner with our Water Resources Department in the area of mandated water quality protection permits. SEMCOG has also authored the "Low Impact Development Manual for Michigan: A Design Guide for Implementers and Reviewers". The Manual is a nationally recognized go-to guide for those wishing to implement sustainable land use practices in Michigan and beyond. Washtenaw County (Water Resources Commissioner) was part of a state-wide Technical Advisory Committee that oversaw the project. The Manual (available on the web) provides design standards that will be used to update the Rules (development design standards) of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. My hope is to bring a more detailed opinion to the board in the next year on the return on investment the tax payers are getting from SEMCOG.

Jeff Irwin

Sat, Apr 3, 2010 : 1:41 p.m.

Outdoor: I would say that the best place to find most of those answers is in the "Detailed Final Screening Report." Look at page 33, where the ridership, capital costs and operating costs are summarized. Basically, SEMCOG's consultants surmised that 268 folks would ride the service daily based on the assumed combination of travel times, ticket price and service hours. I can't recall what ticket price they plugged into these assumptions and therefore what revenue could be backed out of the annual operating costs to derive the answer as to how much subsidization would be required to support service. Also, the governance model could modify the required subsidy because there has never been a clear and common understanding of how costs would be apportioned across jurisdictions. In other words, would Wayne pay more than Washtenaw and how much more would be appropriate? We've discussed basing that on population in the travelshed, SEV, ridership or some blend of those considerations. By way of rough calculation, if this service were supported by property taxes; I think we could support the contemplated service with a small fraction of a mill (probably costing less than 2 days of on-site parking at Metro for a home worth $200K). I base that rough calculation on a 1/3rd share of the operating subsidies listed in the report mentioned above.


Fri, Apr 2, 2010 : 9:22 p.m.

For all of you true belivers I have some basic questions I would like to see answers to. 1) What is the potential ridership of AA-Detroit? 2) What would the projected round trip cost be? 3)What tax rate would you need to pay the subsitities needed to keep the train running? I am willing none of you including SEMCOG has any answers to these 3 basic questions.


Fri, Apr 2, 2010 : 3:04 p.m.

co_res: Their forecasts actually do cause the growth they predict. It's a problem with how land use modeling is done. The model assumes that development happens without government intervention, rather than being driven by it. In SEMCOG's world, we build highways in order to serve communities that are growing rapidly. In reality, communities grow rapidly because SEMCOG builds roads to them. Chicken and egg, eh? SEMCOG's models look at past growth trends and project them into the future to anticipate demand. That's how they figure out where to allocate infrastructure in their 25 year plans. Their entire strategy revolves around reducing congestion, rather than recognizing that congestion is the only thing holding sprawl back. Building infrastructure enables development that wouldn't otherwise take place. No developer is going to build a subdivision in the middle of a corn field inaccessible by major roads (or on congested local roads). Developers aren't stupid. However, SEMCOG's model looks at past trends and says "people are generally moving out into the townships" so they build a road to the cornfield. All of a sudden, it's ripe for development. There's _zero_ recognition that SEMCOG is, itself, encouraging sprawl. It's a pretty well documented problem in regional planning and is something that urban planners hate. However, the issue is boring, esoteric and buried deep within the federal transportation funding system. GLWT.


Fri, Apr 2, 2010 : 10:32 a.m.

wow, I didn't know that SEMCOG was so powerful. They can forecast where growth will happen and it does! Let's have them forecast that the region will recover from this recession this year then. And that everyone who lost a job will get it back tomorrow. Clearly, some commissioners do not understand what or how forecasting works.


Fri, Apr 2, 2010 : 7:07 a.m.

People need to realize that this state is fast losing its reputation and clout in DC. Population declines. A metro-Detroit scandal here and there. Likely going to lose a congressional seat too. Throw in state budget deficits and it's no wonder that neither state nor federal dollars are available to fund projects like rail. Projected usage levels probably arent there either.

Alan Benard

Thu, Apr 1, 2010 : 9:24 p.m.

Michigan will remain broken until her Southeast-Lower region figures out regionalism. This is the fault of L. Brooks Patterson as much as it is the fault of Rep. Carolyn "Cheeks" Kilpatrick as much as it was The Big Three, and everyone else who derives profit or a power base from division. There is a better way, and we must work toward it.


Thu, Apr 1, 2010 : 6:20 p.m.

never had the density from ann arbor to detroit and without a regulatory regional authority never will in this home rule state.


Thu, Apr 1, 2010 : 4:19 p.m.

Every commuter rail proposal in Southeast Michigan in the last thirty years has failed. So lets add more lanes to roads that heavyweight trucks can destroy. Michigan mentality....

Stephen Landes

Thu, Apr 1, 2010 : 4:06 p.m.

Many years ago my office group was to be relocated from Dearborn to Detroit (RenCen) and I was really looking forward to taking the train to work. In those days we had a single Bud car that ran from Jackson to Detroit. There were some other Amtrak type trains, too, but the business man's (person's) train was that Bud car. Unfortunately there simply weren't enough trains each day to make rail commuting practical. There was no provision for those of us that might work overtime or have out of town visitors that needed to be taken to dinner, or even just those who decided to stay in town for the evening to go to dinner and catch a show. In short, what was being offered was a taste of rail transportation with the sort of promise that if it really worked out more trains would be added. Well that is how we always seem to view mass transit: if the trains or buses are full then we'll add more at earlier or later hours. That is the way of death to mass transit: the proper approach is more like "if we build it they will come". I for one will not start using a mass transit system that I can't count on to get me home if I decide I need to stay past 5:00 PM. So far I haven't heard anything like a proposal for a real 24/7 rail service between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Separately, why are the Feds funding routes in Florida and Illinois? Probably because there are paying customers in those areas while there are very few who have the need or desire to head into Detroit on a frequent enough basis to constitute a dependable revenue stream.