Hundreds of people crowded Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor Friday evening for the Mayor’s 13th Annual Green Fair. The Green Fair highlights the city’s commitment to sustainability and featured more than 100 exhibits, environmental education opportunities, interactive displays, free live music and children’s activities.
One of the most popular activities was the interactive exhibit of a commuter railcar – a component of the future commuter rail transportation system in Southeast Michigan. The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA), a Trans4M core member; AMTRAK; the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) are working to plan and implement two commuter rail projects: the Ann Arbor – Detroit Regional Rail Project and the Washtenaw and Livingston Line (WALLY) which will run from Howell to Ann Arbor.
During the fair, visitors roamed inside the newly refurbished cars, sat in the seats and explored the upper deck. The cars have a vintage modern feel with brand new comfortable seats, tinted windows, storage space for each seat and wide aisles. The cab cars and coaches were formally used in Chicago and built in the 1950s-1970s. The fleet was refurbished by Great Lakes Central Railroad (GLC) using only Michigan-based companies and has a total of 23 cars (6 cabs and 17 coaches). Among the cars’ many modern amenities, each car now has storage for several bicycles.
At the exhibit, we spoke to Alex Bourgeau from SEMCOG who explained that the cars will soon be available to transport people to and from special events such as Detroit festivals, Tigers games or the Ann Arbor Art Fair. He said the region could see the commuter line run daily within 2-3 years. We also briefly spoke with a representative from the AATA who was wary of promising such a close deadline. She explained that although the tracks and cars are ready to go, a lot of other things have to fall into place before a regular commuter route is active.
Earlier in the day, during a special unveiling of the railcar, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje spoke of the importance of regional support in order for the commuter rail projects to be successful. The mayor, a major proponent of rail transportation, indicated that, while the WALLY is a viable project for the future, the Ann Arbor-Detroit line is his priority commuter rail project at the moment. The mayor said that he’s hoping that the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) will take on the project. Hieftje emphasized that it isn’t a project that Ann Arbor can manage on its own and expressed his willingness to work with the RTA on this project. The federal government is the major funder for these commuter rail projects, and the mayor stated that he has no plans to put general fund money into them.
Representative Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) also spoke briefly during the unveiling saying, “We all know the economic development benefits behind having rail, and bringing more people into Ann Arbor and giving people the opportunity go into Detroit cheaply, easily and efficiently is phenomenal. I’m absolutely excited.” Representative Zemke also described challenges for the RTA. He explained, “Basically right now, rail in Southeast Michigan is very difficult to get under the RTA because you have to have 100 percent unanimous consent of all board members.” Representative Zemke recently introduced HB 4794 which would change rail projects into a simple majority vote, just as other transit project voting guidelines within the RTA.
The interactive exhibit showcased the investment that has already occurred in these projects and the excitement around the region for commuter rail transportation options. Throughout the evening, a barrage of visitors sifted through the railcar, from toddlers to elderly adults of all different backgrounds, excited to learn more about a new mode of transportation in Michigan. Introducing commuter rail to Southeast Michigan will not only provide a more efficient means of transport for daily commuters but will be a major driver of sustainable economic and community development across the region.
Stay tuned to the Trans4M blog for more updates as these projects develop.
Written by: Liz Treutel, Trans4M Fellow