Mass confusion

Nov 15, 2006 at 12:00 am

A lot of folks were left scratching their bewildered noggins last week when the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) delivered the long-awaited results of a study exploring mass transit options for the Detroit to Ann Arbor corridor.

More than a year in the making, what was expected to be a comprehensive report ended up being reduced to a data-lite PowerPoint presentation.

"It's hard to know exactly what's going on," says Megan Owens, executive director of the nonprofit group Transportation Riders United. "They didn't actually release a full report, so I'm pretty baffled as to where they came up with some of their numbers."

Terry Blackmore, executive director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, reacted similarly. "I asked during the meeting, 'Where's the report that identifies these assumptions,' and the response was that there wasn't a report."

This much is known: A light rail line connecting the D to AA with a stop at Metro Airport isn't going to happen. Too much moola and too few potential riders, says SEMCOG. There weren't, however, many tears shed among the experts we talked to regarding that decision. The more-than-40-mile trip between the two cities at each end of the line would take too long on light rail, we're told.

So that leaves commuter trains running on existing rail tracks or some kind of express bus service linking Detroit with Ann Arbor and a limited number of points in between. (And our two cents worth regarding buses: They travel the same roads our cars sit idling on during rush hour!)

But even within those options, significant questions remain. As it is now, the rail line being looked at would deposit riders in Detroit's New Center area. And how would they get to downtown from there? Transportation Riders United advocates light rail going down Woodward from that point. Is that part of the plan being considered? The people we've talked to don't yet know.

And, according to Owens, some of the cost estimates appear to be wildly out of synch with those experienced in other areas. More underlying info is needed to make a solid evaluation of what SEMCOG is reporting, she and others say.

"We're hoping to get from SEMCOG some of the working papers, because the angels are in the details," says Larry Simmons, director of strategic planning for Wayne County.

Alex Bourgeau, coordinator of intermodal planning for SEMCOG, says a detailed analysis is expected to be ready by January.

But there are other problems that need to be addressed as well. The feds have $100 million waiting for us to use if we can deliver a project that meets their criteria, and the region comes up with at least $20 million in matching funds. But one roadblock is that, unlike burgs like Chicago and NYC, we don't have any kind of rapid transit up and going, so its difficult to calculate realistic ridership numbers — one of the main points the feds are looking at.

"They want us to prove our ridership assumptions, but to do that you have to have a system up and operating because of the heavy reliance on existing data," says Simmons. "It's a catch-22." One solution is to go to work on the feds in an attempt to get the rules changed so that they're fairer to this region, which is woefully behind other major metropolitan areas in this country when it comes to mass transit.

Which is what makes this all so important, and the lack of info coming from SEMCOG so frustrating.

Simmons' boss, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, is committed to seeing something other than buses running the route, says Simmons. "He believes mass transit is critical to the development of this region."

Ficano's far from alone there. The good news here is that all concerned — including SEMCOG — consider mass transit along this corridor both vital and doable. So the big question now is, will SEMCOG get up to speed and get those who want to know all the information needed to make a solid evaluation of the options remaining?

Public meetings regarding the Detroit-Ann Arbor corridor are planned for early December. Go to for details.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]