By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — The city is one step closer to building a new rail-based regional transit hub with last week’s announcement of several million dollars in federal funding for the project.
Dearborn was one of only three Michigan cities awarded rail improvement money as part of a larger $8 billion U.S. Department of Transportation high-speed rail initiative. City officials submitted requests last year totaling $29.5 million for the station project as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Details of the grants haven’t been finalized, and there is some confusion between agencies as to exactly what is receiving funds. The $862 billion Recovery Act utilizes existing framework to allocate funds from the federal government to other governmental bodies, but the unprecedented volume of money being distributed has overwhelmed many agencies.
Robert Kulat, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency administering the grants, was not familiar with the specifics of the Dearborn proposal and could not provide a firm figure for the funding level. In general, he said, projects were chosen based on job creation and the ability to show a well-developed plan.
“What we looked for were things that would create jobs, and we wanted to see a high level of cooperation between the various stakeholders, which is usually a good indicator of success,” said Kulat, who also couldn’t provide job number estimates.
What is certain is that the city will split $40 million with Troy and Battle Creek, where considerably less expensive projects are proposed. The upshot is that the Dearborn station could be paid for in full by stimulus money.
“We’re not entirely clear on how the funding is being disbursed at this point, but based on the total amount allocated to the state, we believe that (all of the projects) are fully funded,” said Tim Hoeffner, administrator of the Michigan Office of High Speed Rail.
Conceptual plans put forth by the city envision a 14,000 square-foot facility located on eastbound Michigan Avenue at Elm Street. The station would be one of five along a new commuter train route between Ann Arbor and Detroit and would replace the city’s existing Amtrak station behind the Police Department. Currently, the rails along the corridor are used mostly for long trips between Chicago and Pontiac and freight.
Other stops along the new local route would include Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and Ypsilanti. The service would offer several daily departures centered on the workday commute and weekend leisure travel, according to planning documents.
Long-term plans call for 110 mph service on the Chicago to Pontiac route, which is why the project was eligible for the high-speed grants, even though it will not employ high-speed trains in the immediate future. The other key component of the station – and the broader Ann Arbor-to-Detroit initiative – is to have additional public transit options available on site, such as bus and shuttle service, in an effort to ease pollution and traffic congestion.
But before the stimulus funds became available the project was a relative uncertainty. In November 2008, the city held a public meeting where a multiple-phase approach to the station was proposed that would have expanded the facility incrementally as ridership grew.
The key to the plan was seeing if enough people would use the service to make it eligible for federal rail funds, but the process could have taken as much as a decade before the station would be built at full scale. Now that wait could be less than two years.
“The guidelines for the money state that it has to be used within two years,” said city spokeswoman Mary Laundroche. “We anticipate that the competitive bid and design process will take about two years and then the construction portion would take about 18 months.”
Aside from offering commuters a new travel option, the station could provide a needed jolt for the local economy.
Within a one-mile radius of the site are some of the city’s most heavily trafficked businesses and institutions: Henry Ford Community College, the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Ford World Headquarters, Fairlane Town Center, much of the west downtown commercial district, and The Henry Ford, which will be connected to the station via pedestrian bridge (see related story).
“We are very excited to get this allocation of federal funds,” Laundroche said. “It’s something that will definitely have a positive impact economically and it’s positive for the environment as well.”