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Posted on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

GM Willow Run plant proposal: $919M Detroit Aerotropolis 'super hydrogen' rail system

By Katrease Stafford


A concept photo of one of the rail cars that would potentially be used in the Detroit Aerotropolis rail line.

Courtesy Justin Sutton

A proposal to create a $919 million Detroit Aerotropolis 60-mile rail system that would connect the Willow Run Airport to the Detroit Metro Airport is in the works, according to Justin Sutton, founder and managing partner of The Interstate Traveler Company.

Sutton said all of the manufacturing for the rail system, including production of the rail cars, would be done on site at GM’s former 5-million-square-foot Willow Run Powertrain Plant facility in Ypsilanti Township. Sutton estimates that about $100 million will be spent on production equipment alone for the facility.

"Everyone seems to be ready to move ahead," Sutton said. "I have significant financial backing. We’ve always seen the Willow Run Assembly plant as an ideal place to begin."

Sutton said he would likely purchase the majority of the 5-million-square-foot former Powertrain facility.

The proposal comes shortly after it was announced the Yankee Air Museum has launched a $6 million campaign to buy the bomber plant — a 175,000-square-foot piece of the overall Powertrain property. Its operations now are in a 47,000-square-foot facility on the east side of Willow Run Airport.

"There's a lot of people that have interest," said Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo. "That's (Sutton's project) one of three viable options that I know are under consideration by RACER Trust."

Thumbnail image for General Motors GM Willow Run powertrain plant.JPG

The former GM Willow Run Powertrain Plant

It's not immediately clear how the Yankee Air proposal would factor into Sutton's, who said he supports the idea of the museum moving to the bomber plant.

Sutton said the "super hydrogen" system would be a magnetically levitated, high-speed rail system suspended 30 feet above the ground. The system would be propelled by solar power stored by hydrogen.

The system would be the first of its kind with a distribution system supporting an on-demand public transit network built along the right of way of the U.S. Interstate Highway Systems, according to Sutton.

The rail system would be able to be utilized by pedestrians, as well as for freight purposes.

The rail system would create 2,385 direct jobs in hospitality and concierge services. Those individuals would staff the rail cars.

Sutton said hundreds of jobs would be created at the manufacturing facility, although the exact number is not yet known.

Sutton will also be proposing a Detroit to Ann Arbor project that is expected to cost an additional $700 million and will create at least 4,765 jobs.

Sutton said these projects would be funded by "domestic sources," although he did not specify who.

"We’ll need pretty much the entire building," Sutton said. "The building is fully operational and there's not much that needs to be done to the property. The building rail will be done in the old building."

Sutton said the rail vehicles would be constructed at the Willow Run facility as well.

"Actual jobs created in construction and related supply chain will be quite large," Sutton said. "The manufacturing jobs we are proposing for Willow Run will likely become stable long-term employment opportunities for the next 50 years or longer."

Estimated revenue and usage

  • Sutton said total annual revenue for the project is estimated to exceed $1.3 billion
  • Pedestrian total projected use daily: 209,088
  • Pedestrian total projected use hourly: 8,712
  • Pedestrian total projected revenue daily, $2.5 million
  • Pedestrian total projected use annually: More than 76 million
  • Return on investment in years including startup time: 2.46 years
  • Number of car transports: 33
  • Passengers per car: 60 people
  • Average time of trip for pedestrian: 12 minutes
  • Number of freight cars: 131
  • Freight transports total projected use annually: 62.6 million tons
  • Cost per kilometer to construct system: $9.2 million

In an email to Detroit Aerotropolis Director Bryce Kelley, Sutton wrote that his company has "immediate access to capital" for the Detroit Aerotropolis project.

"The current version of the cost proposal for the first 60 miles is $919 million or about $14 million per mile, subject to our mutual efforts to design the best possible system for Detroit Aerotropolis as we move forward to build and expand the system," Sutton wrote.

Sutton said if he were able to reach an agreement with the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust, the authority formed in the wake of GM’s bankruptcy in 2010 to market 89 GM holdings across the country, he would not tear down the property.

However, RACER Trust told Tuesday that demolition is now a redevelopment option.

"There's a couple things wrong with tearing the building down," Sutton said. "It's a historical landmark and the building is full of asbestos installation. The EPA said it's not really a good idea to tear this stuff out. To demolish the Willow Run facility, it would be incredibly expensive."

Emails obtained by, show Sutton has been in touch with Stumbo and RACER redevelopment Manager Bruce Rasher, to outline some of his plans, which would include mass production of rail and transports and assembly line equipment that would be shipped internationally.

"This equipment will be set up to manufacture rail and transport components in at least 50 factories around the world in the next 10 years for both elevated and at-grade magleve systems," Sutton wrote.

When reached for comment, Kelley said it was too premature for him to discuss the proposal.

Rasher declined to say whether RACER has been in communications with Sutton about purchasing the property, citing confidentiality agreements.

"I have entered into a confidentiality agreement with close to 50 separate parties," Rasher said. "I'm unable to even confirm if this is a party I have spoken with."

Although Rasher is unable to confirm what companies or entities RACER has spoken with, he said all proposals are vetted based off of a series of criteria, such as whether the buyer is reputable and if it will revitalize and bring jobs to the community.

"To date, we have not received a proposal from any part that even comes close to satisfying all of that criteria," Rasher said.

However, Rasher said RACER is in the process of having detailed discussions with one particular party. Rasher said there are several ongoing discussions with possible entities and developers, but one is "clearly ahead of the pack."

"The party that we're having detailed discussions with seems to show the most promise," Rasher said.

Mark Perry, president of the Ann Arbor-based Perry & Co. consulting company, has also been in touch with Sutton.

"Yes, I have talked to Justin, but within the context of referring him to RACER Trust and what the acquisition procedure is," Perry said. "I believe he's been in touch with Bruce Rasher. That’s been the limit of my conversations with Justin."

Perry said he has some limited knowledge of Sutton's plans, but said it's not the township's role to become involved at this point.


Mark Perry

Tom Perkins | For

"I don’t even want to speculate on that because I don’t know what the full details are... and what support may be needed from all levels of government," Perry said.

"I don’t know if the proposed use is within the zoning. Those are all details that have to be worked out. It would be inappropriate for me or the township to get in between the buyer and the seller. Once RACER Trust is ready to bring a potential buyer to the township, that’s when we would get involved."

Sutton said in addition to local officials, he's reached out to UAW officials, with a focus on the Local 735, that previously operated the labor management for the plant.

"We’ve offered the UAW the opportunity to provide the union services for our workers," Sutton said.

Sutton said his project has support from State Rep. Bill Rogers, R-Brighton, who co-chaired a bipartisan task force in 2009 to present to the legislature about the company. In 2003, the Michigan House and Senate recommended that Interstate Traveler Co.'s system receive federal funding, but it never materialized.

Despite the support, The Ann Arbor News reported in 2009 that local officials were skeptical at the time that the idea could work. Sutton first proposed the Ann Arbor to Detroit line years ago, but conversations really began to take off in 2009.

"I really admire the energy and the enthusiasm of a proposal like this because our transportation system needs a lot of help," Joe Grengs, a University of Michigan urban planning assistant professor, told the News.

However, Grengs said a project like this wasn't feasible, as the cost of constructing a new rail system was far too expensive.

Stumbo is cautiously optimistic about the project.

"The good news is there is finally some economic interest in the redevelopment for that plant, but what I have learned is you get a lot of people calling," Stumbo said. "I used to get excited at every phone call, but I have learned that you have to be patient...

"It sounds like it’s a great idea, but RACER Trust has to vet them. They’re required to look at the financial stability, the job creation, which I think this one absolutely meets, but it's up to RACER Trust to vet them and once they get a letter of intent, they will meet with us and say to us, 'is this a company your community would be interested in?' "

Katrease Stafford covers Ypsilanti for her at or 734-623-2548 and follow her on twitter.



Fri, Apr 26, 2013 : 12:26 p.m.

I have been watching this for a number of years and glad to see this great idea getting some traction. Good Luck Sutton.

original perp

Fri, Apr 26, 2013 : 1:33 a.m.

"Concept Photo"? Perhaps that should have been the first clue as to the level of absurdity that this article contains. Unless of course Mr. Sutton plans on selling his "Concept Camera" for $919 million.

Jay Thomas

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 11:02 p.m.

I'm afraid to say that it looks like... a giant "fund raising" effort (if you know what I mean).

Stewart G. Griffin

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 6:30 p.m.

I think this project is within reach and will someday be a huge Fantasyland!

Stewart G. Griffin

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 6:28 p.m.

Pretty picture but somethings are missing, such as the potholes on the crumbling roadsways below, litter and trash strewn all over the place, graffitti on the track support columns and rail cars, weeds and un-mowed brown grass, abandoned cars at the side of the roads, etc.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 6:15 p.m.

This story is 24 days too late.

Dog Guy

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 6:14 p.m.

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future . . . always has been . . . always will be. Nevertheless, fairy dust and moonbeams seem more appropriate in this particular application.

GreenTv Lake

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 6:13 p.m.

Forward thinking is needed by Americans like Justin Sutton. You have the full support of GreenTV. My best to you Justin, Jonathan David Lake


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:51 p.m.

It is RIDICULOUS to use hydrogen for a rail system. Since it's grounded, you are far better off using electricity to power it. If you have to use a fuel (even a renewable fuel) then use Natural Gas/renewable methane. There is NO WAY that using hydrogen makes economic sense compared with methane, even if you want to power it by solar panels. I therefore question the technical chops of these folks.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:48 p.m.

I'll join the group scratching their heads about the transportation need being filled here -- there's already a project underway to provide commuter / connector service between A2, Ypsi, DTW, Dearborn, and Detroit using the existing rails that would cost less than 1/20 of the price. If Mr. Sutton wants to purchase the old GM plant for his production, wonderful! I just don't know that we should be getting starry eyed about the deployment on this particular route when we have much more cost-effective, ready-to-go options.

Guinea Pig in a Tophat

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:27 p.m.

I'm not so sure about this project, but I found another one that The Interstate Traveler Company mentions that I found is far more interesting: the personal dirigible - . "The Interstate Traveler Company is more excited than ever to share with you our next mode of transportation products; small and medium sized dirigibles. Truly enlightened flight." Is this company for real?


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:20 p.m.

"Super hydrogen"? Sounds a little too much like Tomorrowland Monorail meets Hindenburg.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:03 p.m.

how about we save $900,000,000 and buy some nice buses...

Usual Suspect

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:02 p.m.

I believe we have stumbled across the only corporate Website created with Microsoft FrontPage since 1999.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 7:23 p.m.

Oh Dear. That website brought back some frightful memories. It is kind of hard to convince folks that you are hip, trendy and leading edge with that online presence.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 4:58 p.m.

It does sound kind of like "The Jetsons"... on crack maybe. And I would want to go from Willow Run to Metro - why? Metro to Ann Arbor would be nice, and maybe Metro to Detroit for some, but who is going to pay $2 billion+ for the privilege of constructing all this?? When it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 4:22 p.m.

8712 passengers per hour with 60 per car. That is 145 cars per hour for passengers. Or one leaving a station about every 20 seconds. I don't know of any rail system that spaces individual vehicles that close together. He must have some very good brakes and collision avoidance systems planned for this thing. Then there is the freight, and if the illustration is right, that will add another 131 cars on the system moving 7,146 tons of freight an hour or 55 tons per car per hour. Very aggressive numbers. I would love to see how he is going to interleave the two together with about 10 second spacing between the individual cars. Since they are individual, I am assuming they are remotely controlled and there is no "driver" on board.

Nicholas Urfe

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 8:04 p.m.

@Local Yocal: Us.

Local Yocal

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:36 p.m.

They have yet to build a working prototype to see if it is even feasible. Nice idea, who is gonna fund this?


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 4:19 p.m.

This guy is a total crackpot.

dading dont delete me bro

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 4:09 p.m.

people would come to the facility for what reason? simply to catch a disney ride to dtw? more info please.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 4:08 p.m.

Like other posters, I'm curious: what is the need that is being filled here?

Nicholas Urfe

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 3:41 p.m.

Did this story miss the April 1 deadline?


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:08 p.m.

At first I thought it was supposed to be published on The Onion but somehow landed here.

John of Saline

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 3:23 p.m.

OK, it's insane. But it would be kind of cool to park at Willow Run, then fly out of Metro. Not worth a billion dollars, though.

Nicholas Urfe

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 2:46 p.m.

What a bridge to nowhere. So, who are all these people who want to travel between willow run airport and metro airport? I had no idea that was such a popular route. How far is that, 8 miles? That's only $21,000 a foot. What a deal. Now if only they can tap taxpayer dollars, as you know they intend.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 8:58 p.m.

And, what isn't going to be below these rails? Businesses. Businesses that pay taxes. It seems like a really cool idea and I would hope they can create something like this to create a better version of commuter rail to DTW like the Metro in DC, but this just seems like a pie in the sky proposal. "The rail system would create 2,385 direct jobs in hospitality and concierge services. Those individuals would staff the rail cars." There are roughly 9000 people manning the el and bus lines in Chicago, a system that covers the sprawling city and some burbs. 2385 jobs for 60 miles of track that will most likely only be used for freight seems to be a blatant lie trying to sway someone to give them government funds or a deal of some kind.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 4:59 p.m.

Agreed, if this was a pipeline into and out of Detroit then I would be much more excited. The technology is interesting and if it were true it would be kind of cool to be a forerunner with it, still a skeptic though.

Joe Zurawski

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 2:36 p.m.

I've heard of this system previously. I'll admit I haven't done the math but it just doesn't seem feasible. How much solar energy would be collected and how much hydrogen would that produce? How much hydrogen would be required to power the system? I don't think it adds up. It seems to me it is just another dream that would not be self supporting and rely on government handouts. What ever happened to "Cold fusion"? Here's another.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 1:58 p.m.

P. T. Barnum was right. There is a sucker born every minute.

Jack Gladney

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 5:10 p.m.

Actually, Barnum never said that. It was Syracuse banker David Hannum who once said that of Barnum's patrons.

Scott Straley

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 1:46 p.m.

@Peter, they even have actual pyramids on their site:

Dirty Mouth

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 1:46 p.m.

This will never have happen in this one industry state.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 1:44 p.m.

When it comes to pyramid schemes, go big or go home I guess.

Scott Straley

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 1:20 p.m.

Unfortunately, unless things have SIGNIFICANTLY changed since this article ( was written in 2010, I seriously doubt that this will be developed by this group. His "townhall" approach to raising small quantities of funds from personal investors not only seems to violate security regulations in the past, but the gradual inflated "share price" seems more like a Ponzi scheme than an actual business. It's also interesting that besides running Interstate Traveler Company, Sutton's previous employment on LinkedIn is listed as "Howell Commandery #28 of the Grand Encampment of KT of Michigan" (KT being Knights Templar). Don't get me wrong, this is exciting technology, and if it were remotely realistic could revolutionize Southeast Michigan. But, I'm very, very skeptical.

Katrease Stafford

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 1:30 p.m.

Interesting points, Scott. Others seem to share your skepticism as well and have guarded hope for a project of this caliber. However, what I think this proposal and others show is there is interest in this property that many thought would be vacant for awhile due to its massive size. Officials seem to be optimistic the property will be redeveloped, it's just a matter of choosing the most feasible proposal that will benefit the surrounding communities.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

Pedestrian total projected use daily: 209,088 - Seems VERY optimistic!

Usual Suspect

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 4:57 p.m.


Katrease Stafford

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 12:58 p.m.

I'll be attending an event this evening presented by RACER Trust and a group of University of Michigan students who have created three proposals for the property. Here's a link to the preview story of the event: Bruce Rasher from RACER Trust told me they've received 50 proposals for the property. It will be interesting to see how this all turns out because actual redevelopment of this property will have a tremendous effect on Ypsilanti Township.

Homeland Conspiracy

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 12:46 p.m.

springfield monorail Well, sir, there's nothing on earth Like a genuine, Bona fide, Electrified, Six-car Monorail! ...


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 2:52 p.m.

The name's Lanley. Lyle Lanley. And I come before you good people tonight with an idea. Probably the greatest... Aw, it's not for you. It's more of an Ann Arbor idea.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 2:18 p.m.

Monorail, . . .Monorail, . . MONORAIL! Ah the Simpsons, "the cause of and solution to all lifes problems". I wonder if the creator of the conceptual design purposely did not use a monorail image for this very reason, i.e., because it was a Simpsons episode?

Hugh Giariola

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 1:48 p.m.

You beat me to it. "You know, a city with money is like a mule with a spinning wheel. Nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!"


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 12:45 p.m.

60 miles from Willow Run to Metro? That's quite the route!


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 12:43 p.m.

It's "Bryce", not "Bruce." And I'm not sure why the sidebar is telling us that "3,531 freshmen enrolled in fall 2012" is relevant (boy, I miss Ann Arbor News editors). All that aside, it's a great idea, but seems incredibly far from reality, even though I've always been a huge Jetsons, and Star Trek, fan.

Katrease Stafford

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 12:48 p.m.

Thanks Nerak. I have corrected the typos.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 12:41 p.m.



Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 12:33 p.m.

Whoa. Cool idea, but strikes me as pure fantasy. Clearly a team of people are putting a lot of time and effort into this though.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 12:26 p.m.

Remember the cartoon "The Jetsons" where people went to work by flying cars? There were before that a presentation that visioned such a event happening. Such hasn't happened yet in our time and I doubt very seriously if this will come either. Besides the price tag is utterly enormous, and we can't get light rail going for even half of that; in addition the technology just isn't there for such a proposal. Let us take care of the problems we have under the current scenarios. As Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" character said at the end of one movie, man's got to know his limitations.

Jaime Magiera

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 4:42 p.m.

Several states have already given the green light to autonomous cars. There was a large-scale test of an autonomous car system here in Ann Arbor a few months ago. There are several "flying cars" on the market. It's likely going to come true quite soon.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 11:57 a.m.

I'm happy to see multiple proposals (even if they have some wild ideas). Hopefully one of them will be validated and successful.

Chase Ingersoll

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 11:45 a.m.

The link is worth a look: It's futuristic, but looks at solving a number of problems by incorporating public utilities and energy distribution in the infrastructure. It's a jump in technology / systems that is the equivalent of going from horses to automobiles. If anyone needs reminding of what that jump was up against (the naysayers) - the museum is in Dearborn.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 1:26 p.m.

But that jump was funded by hundreds of private companies, most of whom failed miserably so that a couple could survive. As other posters have stated, why build this? Detroit to Chicago, that makes sense. Connecting two airports doesn't make sense.

Katrease Stafford

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 11:30 a.m.

Sutton has proposed similar plans in the past for areas around the state, including a rail from Grand Rapids to Detroit. Here's a link to that story:


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 11:12 a.m.

Interesting - why would I need to go from Detroit Metro to Willow Run again?


Fri, Apr 26, 2013 : 12:32 p.m.

It is a start for a new technology. 60 miles is enough to work out the bugs. If it flies, then production scale with improve the cost/benefit -


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 9:58 p.m.

Why does the Detroit-Chicago Amtrak stop in Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Niles and Michigan City? The plan is for a 60-mile rail system.

Usual Suspect

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 11:09 a.m.

From where will this $1B come? I don't see any money trees in that concept drawing.


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 11:05 a.m.

please dont call it Detroit Aero. Use SE michigan or southern michigan or ann arbor yo detroit link


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 11:06 a.m.

better yet. the AA-D transporter!


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 11 a.m.

Someone has been spending too much time in Oz smoking...beyond absurd.....


Thu, Apr 25, 2013 : 10:47 a.m.

Nearly $1b in private financing? Really? No public dollars. And they really believe that over some period they can justify this price tag? I have to believe that freight will greatly exceed passenger revenue.