North-South Commuter Rail Overview
The North-South Commuter Rail Line (also known as WALLY, after the counties - Washtenaw and Livingston – it would pass through) is a proposed 27-mile long north-south commuter rail service that would connect Ann Arbor and Howell, with several intermediate stops. This effort is being undertaken as part of TheRide’s research and development program, in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Transportation, and with the support of many government and business leaders, area residents and other community groups that have worked for several years to facilitate the on-going investigation into, and development of, this project.
The discussion herein is intentionally brief but additional details can be found at:
- The North-South Rail Feasibility Study web site (community input, meeting presentations and the study’s technical memoranda can be found at the North-South Rail Study Web Site)
- Friends of WALLY web site (this community-based project advocacy group has emerged for those interested in bringing WALLY to fruition. See the Friends of WALLY web site for more information.)
N-S Rail is being investigated as a way to provide a transit option for travel between Howell and Ann Arbor, to ease traffic congestion in the corridor along US-23, and to promote sound economic development and job creation in the region. N-S Rail would operate on existing state-owned railroad tracks between Howell and Ann Arbor, and privately-owned railroad tracks within Ann Arbor.Potential stations would be in Whitmore Lake, Hamburg Township, Genoa Township, and Howell, with up to three stations in Ann Arbor also under consideration.
The service would consist of commuter rail trains running daily along the line, with initial service levels of four trains daily in each direction on weekdays.Later phases could expand the number of trains and days of operation.
View the WALLY corridor map depicting the service as it is currently conceived.
If research and development efforts conclude that the service is feasible and a local consortium of cooperative governmental agencies was established to pursue additional development, the service would likely be constructed using a combination of federal, State and local funding.Many improvements to the existing railroad tracks have been made in recent years, aimed at improving the freight operations on the railroad.This work would also benefit commuter rail, but additional improvements are needed before passenger service could operate on the line.MDOT also has an option to acquire through lease a fleet of operational railcars that could be put into service quickly. Once the necessary capital improvements are put in place, the daily operations of the service could be undertaken by a public organization organized under the laws of the State of Michigan.
A 2008 study by R. L. Banks, a leading passenger rail consulting firm, provided a high-level feasibility study of the service, based in part on the work of an early advocacy group known as the WALLY Coalition.That study examined service only on the state-owned tracks, with a single station on the north side of Ann Arbor, and several stations further north to Howell.The study produced cost estimates for the project (in its early limited scope) that suggested the service could be implemented quickly and cheaply.
The North-South Rail project received varying degrees of attention over the years.MDOT and AAATA staff have periodically updated these cost and revenue estimates.A Downtown Ann Arbor N-S Rail Station Study was completed in 2014, with a locally-preferred downtown commuter rail station site located between Washington and Liberty Street.
Many questions have been raised over the years about the viability of rail service in the corridor.To answer these questions, a detailed Feasibility Analysis and Conceptual Plan effort was initiated in 2015 and is now nearly complete.This work, funded by a $640,000 federal grant with $160,000 in additional funding from local communities, examined feasibility of the service in a greater level of detail than ever before, and was accompanied by a major public involvement effort spanning both Washtenaw and Livingston counties.
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.The study has included detailed investigations of the improvements (and related costs) to build and operate the system, the number of riders likely to use the system, and the organizational and funding requirements to make the service work.
The study is being guided by a committee of local elected officials from the corridor, and includes representatives from Livingston County, the City of Howell, Village of Hamburg, City of Brighton, City of Whitmore Lake, Washtenaw County, the City of Ann Arbor, MDOT, AAATA, numerous Townships along the proposed route, the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (AADDA), the University of Michigan and SEMCOG.Several other groups – e.g. the Great Lakes Central RR, corridor property and business owners, and environmental groups -are involved in the study in an advisory capacity.
Early findings of the feasibility study are being posted on the study web site in the form of technical memoranda on the topics being studied.The study looked at many ways to design the service before settling on two options, called “Shuttle Service” and “Full Service”, respectively. A high-level summary of the study findings to date is listed below:
- Capital costs to build the service would range from $65M to $122M, for the Shuttle and Full Service options, respectively.
- Annual operating costs would range from $6.6 M for the Shuttle to $13.2M for Full Service
- Initial ridership is forecasted to be between 1,670 (Shuttle) and 1,840 (Full Service) trips daily
- Viable station sites were confirmed in each community, with an assessment of the site’s accessibility and buildability.
- Locations and costs for needed maintenance facilities were estimated (and included in the capital costs mentioned above).
- A thorough examination of existing rights-of-way – including tracks, signals, bridges, switches, etc – was conducted in the field and needed improvements were identified.
- Conversations with the Federal Railroad Administration confirmed the likely need for a Positive Train Control (PTC) System, based on requirements issued in 2008 intended to improve the safety of train operations.
- The study’s financial analysis produced a finding that the project’s construction would qualify for federal funding (estimated at about 50%), minimizing (but not eliminating) the need for funding from state and / or local sources.
- To supplement construction funding and to provide funding for daily operations, local funding could be produced by a new property tax that would be levied at a rate of 0.4 mils to 0.84 mils.Such a levy would likely require a public referendum.
Remaining work on the feasibility study involves examining the type of governance (organization) that needs to be in place for the project to move ahead.Although the project is “feasible” from a technical and engineering perspective, there will need to be strong evidence of public support for an entity to plan, build and operate the service, and raise the funds needed to pay for it.Although AAATA has taken on the role of sponsor of this work for research and development purposes, a new entity – with responsibility for funding and operation - will need to be regional in nature, encompassing the areas that benefit from the service.
A series of public meetings have been held over the course of the feasibility study to gather ideas and report on study progress.The most recent round of meetings took place in March 2017, and were held in Howell, Brighton and Ann Arbor.The materials presented at the public meetings can be found here.