North-South (WALLY) Commuter Rail Service History
The concept for a proposed North-South Commuter Rail service began almost 10 years ago when communities affected by roadway and traffic conditions on I-96 and US-23 between Howell and Ann Arbor learned of the prospective cost and impact of construction projects to mitigate congestion within this corridor. With estimated highway construction costs nearing $500 million and predictions of multiple years of projects to improve capacity, a coalition of public and private entities developed a preliminary vision for an alternative rail service on existing state-owned track between Howell and the north side of Ann Arbor, which could assist in alleviating traffic demands during highway construction. This idea gained significant grass-roots support from the public, local government agencies and the host freight railroad, and a high-level feasibility study was commissioned and performed in 2008 by consulting firm RL Banks and Associates.
The Banks Study found that a North-South Commuter Rail service was viable, and early ridership estimates (1300 round-trips daily), operational cost analysis, and community surveys supported that conclusion. However, the Banks Study also pointed out several issues that would need to be addressed in more detail if any such service were to be developed. In particular, the focus of the Banks Study was limited to use of the service contained entirely on state-owned tracks and pointed out significant questions regarding the need for train signaling systems and coordination with other railroads that could be affected by commuter rail operations.
As the general concept for a commuter train between Washtenaw and Livingston Counties began to take hold and local advocates became more enthusiastic about the potential for such service, the need to coordinate planning efforts resulted in multiple government agencies coming together to evaluate the situation. Representatives from Livingston County, the City of Howell, Washtenaw County, the City of Ann Arbor, MDOT, AAATA, numerous Townships along the proposed route, Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (formerly Urbanized Area Transportation Study), the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (AADDA), Great Lakes Central RR, corridor property owners, University of Michigan and SEMCOG became involved in more detailed discussions of the proposed service.
The project also became part of the (Ann Arbor) Mayor’s Model for Mobility in 2006. Later the AADDA, UM and Environmental Protection Agency agreed to underwrite a portion of passenger fares for a period of up to 3 years, and the AADDA pledged $250K per year over three years to cover operating expenses. In 2008, AAATA the become the lead local agency for the project (‘designated authority’), with MDOT serving as its liaison for the purpose of pursuing federal and state grant and funding opportunities. For official planning purposes, the “North-South Commuter Rail” (N-S Rail) became the official research and development name of the concept, however it should be noted that the name “WALLY” (a loose contraction for the “Washtenaw and Livingston Line”) has often been used by many project advocates.
With the spread of grass-roots support, the concept for N-S Rail/WALLY soon began to expand beyond the state-owned system, with particular focus on service to downtown Ann Arbor. However as foreseen in the Banks Study, permission to extend the service beyond the state-owned system would be required from the Ann Arbor Railroad. Original conversations between AAATA and the Ann Arbor Railroad revealed that due to significant liability concerns, the railroad was not interested in hosting any type of passenger service.
During 2009 to 2011, MDOT invested in major track improvements, making higher train speeds possible on their portion of the tracks. New sidings have also been built, potentially available for train storage. MDOT has also completed the first phase of rehabilitation of 23 used railcars, and these are currently available (and branded as “MITrain” rolling stock) for use in North-South, Ann-Arbor-to-Detroit-Service, special trains, and Amtrak service.
During this period, The City of Howell, Washtenaw County and DDA all donated funds for further studies of the proposed route and station sites. To assist in obtaining additional funds for studying the proposed service, AAATA and MDOT also collaborated on applications for federal planning and research grants such as FTA’s 5304 Program and FHWA’s Transportation, Community, and System Preservation (TCSP) Program.
In the interest of appropriate stewardship of these donated funds, and unsure of the outcome of federal funding applications, the AAATA issued a multi-phase RFP in late 2011 for conditional studies of the proposed corridor. With respect for the unresolved questions of permission regarding access to the Ann Arbor Railroad and the total amount of available funding, separate parameters and phases were developed for studying downtown Ann Arbor station locations and station sites north of downtown Ann Arbor to Howell.
Then in mid-2012 a unique set of events began to unfold: 1) the AAATA RFP selection process was about to wrap up with a contract award to use the 5304 grant and all of the local contributions for studying as many station sites as possible between Ann Arbor and Howell, when the TCSP award was announced by USDOT; 2) consequently, the AAATA contract award was then held pending confirmation of the TCSP grant and its implementation requirements; and 3) it was learned that the Ann Arbor Railroad was possibly up for sale.
These issues extended through the end of 2012, and in early 2013 at the same time AAATA and MDOT were discussing TCSP implementation with FHWA and FTA, it was confirmed that the Ann Arbor Railroad had been sold to Watco, a national short-line railroad holding conglomerate. MDOT and AAATA immediately made contact with Watco to gauge their interest in allowing commuter rail operations and received a positive response. With FHWA and FTA still in discussions about which federal agency would administer the TCSP grant, but to keep the Watco conversations and the AAATA RFP/contract process moving forward, it was decided to advance only the downtown Ann Arbor station element as Phase I, and authorize that portion of the contract using limited local funds and a previously awarded 5304 grant for that purpose.
As AAATA, MDOT, FHWA and FTA continued their discussion regarding TCSP implementation, Phase I work on the downtown Ann Arbor station site review progressed throughout 2013. In addition during 2013, other noteworthy accomplishments were realized: the rehabilitation of the commuter rail cars was completed, and cars were presented for public display at the Ann Arbor Green Fair in June and in Hamburg Township in September. Information about N-S Rail efforts was also shared and coordinated with staff working on the Ann Arbor Connector project, as well as MDOT staff working on revitalized US-23 construction plans. The US-23 construction plans also afforded staff the opportunity to assemble updated operational and cost calculations for the proposed commuter rail service, including a possible “Minimum Operating Configuration” for a truncated shuttle service specifically to address location-specific, construction-related congestion demands.
While efforts to fully evaluate and pursue possible implementation of N-S Rail have been under way for several years, significant progress and promise has been shown recently. The nearly-completed Phase I study of prospective Downtown Ann Arbor N-S Rail station site locations has renewed interest in the project and has addressed the issue of a preferred downtown Ann Arbor station site. The pending obligation of TCSP funding for Phase II will allow for continued and comprehensive review of most remaining prospective service issues and locations. At the urging of FTA and FHWA, prior to the obligation of funding for the TCSP Grant, the scope of Phase II has been revised with supplemental related tasks to reflect a broader focus, namely to establish in greater detail the overall feasibility of the North-South Commuter Rail project, still including station location analysis but now also adding long-term funding, operational plans, and to clarify the preliminary environmental analysis relevant to the proposed commuter rail service.
The Ann Arbor Downtown Station Location Project (Phase I effort), begun in March 2013, was intended to resolve issues related to a more precise location for the downtown station in Ann Arbor. As of June 2014, the work on this study is essentially complete. The study examined the entire AARR right of way between Hill Street and Summit, and settled on four sites for more detailed analysis. These four sites were analyzed against a series of evaluation criteria, and a site between Washington and Liberty Street was selected as the preferred site for the downtown Ann Arbor N-S Commuter Rail Station. In addition, conceptual designs for the station determined that it would fit within the confines of the east side of railroad right-of-way, and that the cost of such a station would be approximately $1.8 million.
The North-South Commuter Rail (WALLY) Feasibility and Conceptual Planning Study (Phase II) is about to start, and is being funded largely by a Transportation and Community System Preservation (TCSP) grant awarded in 2012 by the Federal Highway Administration, with the remaining 20% of the work covered by local matching funds. Local funds include contributions from Howell ($37K), Washtenaw County ($50K), and AADDA ($50K), with about $12K from AATA. This research and development effort has been designed in collaboration with FHWA and FTA, and the agreed-upon scope of work represents a shift in emphasis from a study of station sites to an in-depth examination of operational and construction feasibility, and a detailing of the service concept, building on earlier work.
(This work was previously envisioned as Phase II of an RFP issued and awarded by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA/TheRide), per a Brooks Act-compliant solicitation and selection process initiated in 2011. The original project RFP was for a two-phase commuter rail station site review, design and planning process that included an emphasis on addressing at least some of the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in preparation for future project development and implementation.
As a result of the original RFP process, the AAATA Board approved a contract award to Smith Group/JJR to undertake Phases I and II of the (then-named) North-South Rail Station Location and Design Study, with funding authority issued for Phase I services that are presently nearing completion, and with an option to increase the contract scope at a later date, using additional approved funds in the AAATA budget, and additional funding from the TCSP grant award. At this point, the award of the TCSP grant has enabled funding of Phase II, subject to the request of FHWA/FTA for the scope revisions described, which have been completed and are described below.
The purpose of the North-South Commuter Rail (WALLY) Feasibility and Conceptual Planning Study is to validate the overall feasibility of the N-S Rail commuter rail project concept and to prepare documentation, if the project is determined feasible, to ready the project for future federal funding.