Issues Of The Environment: Expanding Public Transportation In Washtenaw County

Apr 20, 2016

Gillian Ream Gainsley, Ypsilanti Representative for The Ride
Credit Doug Coombe / Concentrate

Public transportation in Washtenaw County is growing. The AAATA is expanding service beginning in May, and increased rail service may be on the horizon.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair speaks with Gillian Ream Gainsley, Ypsilanti representative for the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, about how these transportation methods may impact the local environment.


Overview

  *   On May 1st, the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority (AAATA) is planning to more than double the number of routes in eastern Washtenaw County, including doubling the number of Ypsilanti bus routes and increasing frequency. This is the largest expansion of bus services in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area since 1979.

  *   In mid-March, Ypsilanti City Council approved $2 million for the construction of an Amtrak platform in Depot Town. However, MDOT has yet to approve the stop. 

  *   Washtenaw County and Southeast Michigan voters are likely to be asked to adopt a millage to support the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan in November.  The two main RTA projects that affect Washtenaw County are Bus Rapid Transit on Washtenaw and the Ann Arbor-Detroit rail line.

May 1st Expanded AAATA Service to Eastern Washtenaw County

As part of the largest expansion of bus services in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area since 1979, the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority is planning to more than double the number of routes in eastern Washtenaw County.  The new service, which starts on May 1, is the third phase of fixed-route and paratransit improvements voters approved in May 2014.

In eastern Washtenaw, the AAATA will replace routes 10, 11 and 20 with seven new routes, which will provide more direct service.  Route 3 serving Huron River Drive will also begin serving LeForge Road, River Street, and Clark Road.  In addition, buses on the new routes will run every 30 minutes instead of every 60 minutes on weekdays.

The numbers are now grouped geographically, and all local Ypsilanti buses are routes 41 through 47.  As part of the new plan, the 11 Ypsilanti South route will split into three routes - 43, 45 and 47 - that will serve southern Ypsilanti Township.  Route 20, Grove-Ecorse, which serves the east part of Ypsilanti Township, will break into routes 42, 44 and 68. 

Low Fuel Prices May Temporarily Decrease Ridership

AAATA CEO Matt Carpenter, who started on the job last June, believes lower gas prices have more people hopping in their cars again.  "Low fuel prices are depressing ridership in transit agencies across the nation," he said.  "This is not a local phenomenon.  It's very much an artificial situation because of the price of oil, which we know is a very political situation that's coming out of the Middle East.  So, it's a temporary situation."  Carpenter said he remains optimistic ridership will bounce back, and he believes the next round of service improvements in May will help.

Ypsilanti Amtrak Train

The Michigan Department of Transportation says it will consider plans for a rail stop in Ypsilanti's Depot Town.  However, the announcement doesn't mean a rail stop is approved.  MDOT must OK plans once they are developed.  Previously, MDOT and Amtrak wouldn't consider a train stop in Depot Town.  But in a Dec. 9 letter to City Manager Ralph Lange, Al Johnson, manager of railroad operations for MDOT, wrote that the agency changed its position.  He said the results of a new analysis "were favorable for intercity passenger rail service."

Ypsilanti would be on Amtrak's Wolverine line, which runs from Chicago to Pontiac with southeast Michigan stops in Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Detroit, Birmingham and Royal Oak. 

Mayor Amanda Edmonds stressed that there's still a long way to go before a train stops in Depot Town, but she says she's thrilled that a project is moving forward. 

The next step is for the city to design an ADA-compliant platform that meets specifications provided by MDOT, the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, and Norfolk Southern.  The city will also have to close several railroad crossings.

$2 Million Committed to Amtrak Platform

Ypsilanti City Council in March unanimously approved separate resolutions to hire OHM to design a platform that will serve as the stop, and to commit $2 million to building it. 

Amtrak is also asking the city to close crossings on Park and Grove Streets.  Ernat said the tracks already serve as a barrier between the residential and light industrial areas, and the city is planning to create four cul-de-sacs.  The planning commission will take up that issue at an upcoming meeting, and the crossings are expected to be closed in July.  The city will receive $375,000 from MDOT for doing so.

RTA Michigan Avenue Corridor Study

The two main RTA projects that affect Washtenaw County are Bus Rapid Transit on Washtenaw and the Ann Arbor-Detroit rail line.  Jack Lessenberry wrote an excellent column recently with background on the RTA: “Metropolitan Detroit, the city that put the world on wheels, may well be the city with the worst mass transit in the nation.  “Detroit is the only one of the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas where there is no mass transit of any kind from the airport to the downtown,” said John Hertel, a longtime transit booster who is CEO of SMART, the suburban bus system.

This year, that could all begin to change.  In November, a 4-year-old agency called the RTA, for Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, will put a millage request on the ballot in four major counties – Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw.  Michael Ford, the 54-year-old Seattle native hired to head the agency, said the RTA board has yet to determine how much the millage will be or for how long it would be in effect, though experts are guessing that it would be at least one mill for more than a decade.  They should make that decision, he said, no later than the beginning of May.  They need to set the rate high enough to trigger matching federal funds, but not too high to scare voters.

For years, there was little interest in any form of mass transit other than bare-bones buses, for one big reason: In the home of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, it was long seen as a patriotic duty to have a car.  But times have changed.  Surveys show millennials — people born after the early 1980s — increasingly want mass transit.  Others desperately need it, especially in poverty-stricken areas like Detroit. As many as 40 percent of adults in the city have no access to a car.

What the RTA envisions is a fleet of special buses, and a system in many places of dedicated bus lanes and stations that are typically in the center of the roadway.  Known in the trade as BRT, for “Bus Rapid Transit,” the system would be designed to provide many of the best features of light rail or a metro system.  The system would include corridors to whisk commuters to place like the airport, and would be designed to coordinate closely with, rather than replace, suburban and Detroit city systems.

That, however, will require voter approval —and getting Michiganders to voluntarily raise their taxes may not be easy, in the say-no-to-any-taxes Tea Party era.  The RTA, which was enacted at the governor’s urging during a lame-duck session in 2012, has some advantages, however.  It doesn’t need legislative or local permission to put a proposal on the ballot.  Nor will the proposed millage have to pass in every county — if it wins an overall majority, RTA will take effect everywhere.

Here's the RTA's current info on the Michigan Avenue Study. They are planning to release the full Master Plan and details in May.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu