ANN ARBOR, MI — Ann Arbor officials have been hoping for over a decade to get federal clearance to build a new Amtrak train station in Fuller Park, but they’ve been dealt a new blow by the Federal Railroad Administration.
After several years of working through the federal review process, many delays and some pushback, city officials received an update from the FRA this month: The agency is done dealing with it, at least for now.
High cost estimates, too much parking for cars and lack of need are among the reasons the FRA cited for the decision.
“The cost is high because the city’s preferred location for the station is constrained and the city is proposing a substantial amount of parking, requiring the station to be located over the tracks,” the FRA wrote in an Aug. 11 letter to the city.
“In addition, the city’s preferred station design exceeds intercity passenger rail needs. Therefore, FRA is discontinuing the development of the EA (environmental assessment) and does not intend to complete the environmental process at this time.”
The letter was signed by Jamie Rennert, director of the FRA’s Office of Infrastructure Investment.
John Fournier, the city’s acting administrator, relayed the news to City Council in an Aug. 13 email.
“This action by FRA does not approve or deny the draft EA, but rather simply ends the FRA’s work on the project — which is a particularly disappointing outcome,” Fournier wrote, indicating the city is strategizing a response and reaching out to U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and the Michigan Department of Transportation to learn more.
This kind of decision from a federal agency is uncommon and the city is trying to understand what prompted the outcome, rather than a flat-out denial or approval, Fournier said.
Mayor Christopher Taylor called the FRA’s letter an “unwelcome surprise” and “a big step backwards.” The city’s small Amtrak station on Depot Street is inadequate and it’s crucial to expand rail service in Ann Arbor, he maintains.
“Obviously, federal participation is fundamental to moving the project forward, and so we’re going to need to evaluate what our options are,” he said. “And certainly working with Rep. Dingell’s office is an important part of that.”
The city’s continued push for a new station in Fuller Park, in an area where there’s a parking lot in front of the University of Michigan Hospital, has been a subject of community debate for over a decade. Some community members argue the city should just build a new station where the current Amtrak station on Depot Street has stood since 1983, or convert the Gandy Dancer restaurant — located in the city’s historic train depot building on Depot Street — back into the grand passenger rail station it was in centuries past.
Between city funds and federal grant money, the city spent millions of dollars on studies and plans over the years, weighing the pros and cons of various options for a new train station. The city’s sights have long been set on Fuller Road, but cost estimates for the station continually ballooned.
As of 2019, the city’s capital plan showed a cost estimate of $14.7 million for final design, plus $86 million for the first phase of construction. Some city leaders had hoped or assumed the federal government would cover 80% of the costs.
All Aboard on Depot Street, a citizens group that’s been tracking the project and prefers the current station location, raised concerns two years ago that both phases of the Fuller Road station project could cost over $171 million, with a majority of costs dedicated to parking, putting too much emphasis on automobiles. Council Member Ali Ramlawi, D-5th Ward, said that figure is correct, based on information he’s seen.
“Thankfully I was not a part of this boondoggle, as it was before my time,” he said.
Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, said in 2018 the first phase of the train station project could include a parking deck with 539 spaces, plus another 109 spaces in a surface lot, for a total of 648 spaces, 150 of which would be reserved for city park users.
The city argued 1,320 total parking spaces may be needed at the station in the future if Amtrak service on the Detroit-Chicago line expands to 10 daily roundtrips and if a commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit is implemented.
Cooper did not respond to requests for comment on the latest communication from the FRA.
In the FRA’s Aug. 11 letter, Rennert recalled some of the history of the train station project, noting the FRA provided federal funding for preliminary engineering and environmental documentation in 2011 under a federal high-speed rail grant program. MDOT partnered with the city, ultimately leading to public release of an environmental assessment report in 2017.
“FRA acknowledges and appreciates the effort the city has undertaken since that time to address the over 100 public comments received on the EA, as well as FRA’s own questions regarding the project,” Rennert wrote this month. “However, as FRA previously informed the city, the cost estimate for the city’s preferred project is an order of magnitude higher than other new intercity passenger rail and multimodal stations for which MDOT was awarded federal funding by FRA to construct.”
Taylor maintains Fuller Park is an optimal location for a new station because it’s near Michigan Medicine, a major employment center that also attracts many visitors to Ann Arbor, and it’s a good connection point for last-mile transit, such as buses to shuttle people to other parts of Ann Arbor.
Supporters of keeping the current location argue it’s easier to walk to downtown from Depot Street and it’s more in the heart of Ann Arbor, and surrounded by properties that are expected to be redeveloped in the coming years, including a major riverfront redevelopment. It also doesn’t require repurposing parkland.
A realistic project could have been built on Amtrak property, rather than taking the extended time to push to repurpose city parkland, the All Aboard on Depot Street group maintains.
“We’ll see what our next steps are and do what’s best for the community,” Taylor said, acknowledging a lower-cost station with less parking could be an option to consider.
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