Commuter rail service delayed, commuter rail station on track

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Passengers arriving from Chicago fill the platform at the Dearborn Amtrak station Friday. A plan to expand rail routes to include daily commuter service from Detroit to Ann Arbor last week was put on hold indefinitely due to funding shortages.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — A proposed commuter rail service running from Detroit to Ann Arbor – including a stop in Dearborn – has been forced to scale down due to a lack of funding, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments announced last week.

Organizers had hoped to have the service up and running on a limited basis by October, but that projection relied on about $100 million in federal grants that the initiative sought but didn’t get. The fall rollout was supposed to include four-times-daily weekday round trips and three trips on Saturdays and Sundays.

But high startup costs pushed the per-rider costs higher than permitted by federal grant guidelines, which excluded SEMCOG from receiving any money. So far the group has spent $33 million to upgrade track and purchase or refurbish rail cars, but there still remains another $50 million in unfunded costs necessary to get everything up and running.

In the meantime, SEMCOG will look to add service for special events this fall as a way to build public awareness for the project while the search for new funding sources continues.

“We’re going to have event trains this fall and we’ll be stopping wherever the Dearborn station is,” said Carmine Palombo, SEMCOG director of transportation.

And although commuter rail service is on hold indefinitely, the city’s plans for a federally funded “commuter” rail station are still on track. The project won a competitive grant of roughly $28 million as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus package as it is commonly known.

Two days after SEMCOG announced the setback, city officials on Thursday met with architectural firms at the tentative station site – on the south side of Michigan Avenue near Elm – to go over project specs.

Economic and Community Development Director Barry Murray said that the design phase should be wrapped by the end of this year and construction could begin as early as March 2011. Per ARRA requirements, all of the money awarded for the project must be spent within two years, meaning that all construction should be wrapped by the end of 2012.

While many details have yet to be worked out, there are some aspects of the station design that officials have decided are key. Among them is the inclusion of a transit hub that would provide rail passengers immediate connection to various other modes of transportation, such as taxis or buses, in order to get to outlying destinations.

The thinking behind the hub element is that it would make the station actually viable for commuters, by creating a venue for on-demand pickup service, as opposed to, for example, the city’s current Amtrak station which boasts little in the way of extra-rail travel options. It remains to be seen how much the news will affect the station design, but officials say things are still moving full-speed ahead.

“We obviously want the commuter trains too,” Murray said, “because it would give us a dimension to this region that we are currently lacking.”

“But that isn’t going to slow down the station. We’re going to continue to push forward.”