On Friday, May 14, I interviewed Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, Michigan 15th Congressional District Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari, who were made available to reporters during a break in a conference about local commuter and high-speed long-distance rail development. Political and economic development leaders from southeastern Michigan attended the meeting at Ypsilanti’s Eagle Crest Resort. Hieftje, Dingell, and Porcari had earlier inspected a pair of decrepit bridges in Ann Arbor before joining the conference. Detroit Free Press staff writer Matt Helms also participated in the interview, recording with a stylish iPhone, and I’ve included his questions and the responses. His story is on the Freep’s site. Because my own story on AnnArbor.com has drawn dozens of well-written, carefully reasoned comments on the subject of rail development, I decided to make the full text of the session available.
Here I should note that it was a privilege to meet Dingell, who entered Congress in 1955, the year of my birth. At the age of 84 and already the longest-serving member ever in the House of Representatives, he’s seeking a 29th term.
A notice from his office said the audience would include the following:
Congressman Mark Schauer, MDOT Director Kirk Steudle, MDOT Chief Deputy Director Jacqueline Shinn, Mayor of the City of Dearborn Jack O’Reilly, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority CEO Michael Ford, City of Romulus Director of Economic Development Tim Keyes, Norfolk Southern Vice President Strategic Planning John Friedmann, SEMCOG Executive Director Paul Tait, SEMCOG Transportation Director Carmine Palumbo, and Washtenaw County Road Commission Chairman David Rutledge.
This morning you were touring with Congressman Dingell?
Hieftje: Yes, we’ve been entertaining the Deputy Secretary of Transportation this morning. We had meetings in Ann Arbor today that were about the Stadium [Boulevard] bridges, and then we made a visit out to our new, our proposed Fuller Road intermodal transit station. I think he was very impressed with that as well, and that would provide the new gateway to Ann Arbor.
Baggy Paragraphs: Any new epithets come up for the bridges?
Hieftje: No, no, nothing like that. We took a look—we visited the bridges and saw the condition. I mean, the one that’s in the worst shape was built in 1917. So we’re going to be moving forward with that, in any event, next spring, but we would very much like to have federal funding to help out.
Baggy Paragraphs: As far as the light rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit, they’ve kind of fallen off the pace.
Hieftje: Well, they have fallen behind a little bit. But that was mostly due to the fact that the money didn’t come through for the sidings that would’ve allowed the freight trains and the passenger rail to pass. Really, technically, light rail is a term that refers to rail that is overhead electric. This is called commuter rail because it’s going to take place with conventional engines on the existing track. It still has great potential. We’re very hopeful that in the next round of funding those sidings will be put in. It’s interesting that we’re talking about high-speed here today because the exact same changes that make the high-speed work are the ones that make the commuter work.
Freep: So you’re saying that commuter rail has stalled because—
Hieftje: Mostly because of the lack of sidings and money that didn’t come through to put those in. We need to be able to pass to get trains to stay on schedule.
Freep: There was also some significant question about whether there would be enough riders to help pay for it.
Hieftje: Well, this project has been conceived as one that is not going to start out with immediate ridership, and it starts out as a demonstration project and then we work up to 4.00 in the morning and 4.00 in the afternoon. We don’t really have a concern about ridership. With 20,000 people coming to the hospital complex where our new station will be, the University of Michigan, as you heard today, just they’ve proposed in the past, they’re going to buy the ticket for their employees. There’s 4,000 of those employees who have an Ypsilanti zip code. There’s probably about—the U-M employs about 40,000 people—there’s probably about 15,000 of them that live to the east of Ann Arbor. So at least as Ann Arbor’s concerned, we’re not concerned. We’re the busiest stop on Amtrak already, and the ridership to the airport will be quite tremendous.
Baggy Paragraphs: Is there, besides what the local leadership in government is doing, anything that local people who support this project can do?
Hieftje: Certainly. Transportation Riders United is a local advocacy organization. I would urge them to contact them, go to their website and join. Certainly, it’s going to take a lot of us working together to make this happen. But this is very exciting today. Now we’ve had this vision of commuter rail coming to Ann Arbor for quite some time. I know we share that with Dearborn. They just got tens of millions of dollars for a new station over there. As you heard today, they’re building new stations in Birmingham, a new station in Battle Creek, as well. I really think this is going to happen. And this is another step down that path for both the commuter rail and the high-speed.
Freep: [Background noise] the recent announcements of scaling back the original proposal?
Hieftje: Well, what it does, is delay. But I just remind people that the average rail proposal in the United States—average—takes 10 years from conception to fruition. We’re pretty much on that timetable. We still have a couple years to go.
Baggy Paragraphs: Some people had spoken of the fall as a possible startup.
Hieftje: You may still see a couple of demonstration trains that maybe will come to a football game or take people over to a game in the Detroit area. But until you get those sidings in and we can get up to speed, you won’t begin to see the 4.00 in the morning, 4.00 in the afternoon. We’re pretty confident that’s going to happen, though.
Baggy Paragraphs: What kind of demonstration? You say, ‘We may see that.’ What’s planned?
Hieftje: You could talk to this gentleman right here with SEMCOG, who could tell you. But what they’ve talked about is maybe a train in for a Michigan football game, a train over in the Detroit area for some special event. So that type of thing. One of the ways that I kicked off rail in Ann Arbor was, back in 2006, we put people on a train ride up to Livingston County—first time a passenger rail had gone down that track in about 70 years. And we showed, just to demonstrate, ‘Hey, this works.’
Baggy Paragraphs: What does the federal government need to do?
Hieftje: That’s why we’re here today. The high-speed isn’t going to happen without federal government help, and the commuter rail’s not going to happen without their help, either. The MDOT has been as helpful as they can be in a state that is really running out of money, but in order for this to happen, it’ll take federal involvement. What we’re hearing from the Deputy Secretary of Transportation is that they are very much involved in this and they really want to make it happen.
Baggy Paragraphs: I wondered if you’d tell me about your day so far. You were touring Ann Arbor again, correct?
Dingell: We were looking at matters of considerable importance to the people of Ann Arbor. Most important of which, was of course, the two bridges that very desperately have to be replaced. We were doing it with, as you will note, the Mayor. And we looked at a number of things there related to those matters. And the Secretary—Secretary Porcari—has been very, very kind, coming back here to be with us today to talk to us about these matters. So I think you ought to ask him about his feelings.
Freep: How are your feelings about the Detroit to Ann Arbor commuter rail?
Dingell: We are just now talking about it. I’ve been pushing for that for a long time, as you very well know. Senator Stabenow has staff here, as you know very well. Senator Levin was going to come, but he has been delayed en route. He’s very interested. And of course Congressman Schauer, my colleague in the Congress [from the] Seventh District is very interested in it, and he is going to be helping. The Secretary is back here to look at these matters, and I am very hopeful because, first of all, it’s justified, second of all, it’s necessary for a lot of reasons: moving of people, saving of money, easing congestion on the highways, and very frankly, stopping some of the problems we have with air pollution here in the southeast corner of Michigan, with which this will be extremely helpful. And of course then there’s the question of global warming and climate change, where this will make a very major contribution in reducing CO2 emissions.
Freep: You’re well aware of Michigan’s financial troubles and—
I hear about them every day.
Freep: So how much can Michigan expect from federal help for these kind of programs it can’t afford on its own?
Dingell: All that the Congressional delegation can get for them. I can’t tell you because, remember, the applications that have to be filed, not all of them have been filed. There are many different sources. For example, today we’re talking about TIGER grants, on which the Secretary is particularly interested in focusing. So we’re very much concerned about that. We will be working away to try and see to it that we deal with TIGER grants both with regard to the two bridges in Ann Arbor, the Stadium bridges, or with regard to the Ann Arbor-Romulus-Dearborn-Detroit commuter rail and high-speed rail, and of course the high-speed rail between Detroit and Chicago, which has been a long-time matter of interest to me.
Freep: [Recorder on pause] with other states in terms of getting its act together with high-speed rail?
Porcari: Michigan’s done a great job of getting its act together, and you see evidence of it here today where at the municipal and the regional and the state level, there’s a common vision for high-speed rail, how that ties in with commuter rail, how it ties into a larger national network. So, all very positive. And as you heard from Joe Gordon of Amtrak earlier, the highest speed that Amtrak has right now, west of the Alleghenies, is actually on the Chicago-Detroit leg. So clearly we can get to 110 mph there. What we want to do is make sure that we have the kind of predictable, consistent, convenient frequencies that help encourage people to ride the rails. It’s a great way to tie into a larger economic development strategy, too. It’s important for people to understand that the high-speed rail program means jobs. We are working every bit as hard on the made-in-America manufacturing aspects of this as we are on actually delivering the projects themselves. Secretary [Ray]
LaHood is overseas meeting with the manufacturers in Japan and China right now, basically saying, ‘If you want to sell it here, you have to build it here.’ And as part of a larger strategy, we want to capture that entire value chain. It’s not just the final assembly. We want the wheel bearings, the paint, the glass, the propulsion systems, every bit of it. And we are determined that that strategy will succeed. We already have 30 manufacturers, component manufacturers and final assemblers that have already pledged either to move to America or expand to America if they get orders as part of this. So I mention that in part because there’s no better illustration than here in Michigan of skilled workforce, available facilities, strong technical ability to build these kinds of systems. What we want to do as part of the economic development spinoff of high-speed rail is marry those together with the opportunities that we have here.
Baggy Paragraphs: Are you aware of Detroit’s history as a rail center?
Porcari: I am. We’re kind of coming full circle. It’s back to the future, if you will, where we have somehow taken our eye off the ball and let what was one of America’s great industries just atrophy. Going back into the high-speed rail business gives us the opportunity to reestablish that manufacturing in America. And, again, the firms can locate where they want to, but they look for a great workforce and they look for facilities and look for the ability to do these kind of things. And, boy, there’s some real opportunity here.
Freep: What will be available to states like Michigan who are at risk of turning away federal transportation money because we can’t come up with the federal match, yet we’re supposed to come up with the federal match as well for something new in commuter rail and high-speed rail?
Porcari: This is a very difficult time for all states. To varying degrees, virtually every state, the state-funded part of it, is having real difficulties—not surprisingly. But the whole purpose of the Recovery Act was to get projects out the door and get people employed. You saw the numbers: 2.2 million people, which is a pretty substantial positive impact from that. In the transportation case of the Recovery projects, it builds projects that are going to be there for a generation or two in many cases. So that was one way to jump-start the states. We’ve also done things, again through the Recovery Act, like waive on, for transit systems, letting them use some of that money for operating costs, for the short term, up to 10 percent of it. It didn’t make sense to buy new hybrid buses when you’re laying off the operators. So it was a, that was the reason that the Recovery Act allowed that. Moving forward, it’s clear the partnership between our state and local colleagues and federal government, we’re going to have to work on ways to make sure we have an adequately funded transportation program. It’s a real challenge. We have, by any objective standard, across the country, we have not made the investments over the past couple of decades that we needed to, and we’re playing catch up.
Freep: Do you think people should be optimistic even though we had some recent news where a promising project for commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor kind of stalled and it’s now become a demonstration project rather than a real committed project?
Porcari: I think in the long haul, definitely, people should be optimistic about it. And it’s always difficult. There’s never a pile of funding laying around waiting for a project even in the best of times. But when you look at what commuter rail and high-speed rail could do to revitalize communities, when you look at how it doesn’t replace other parts of the transportation system, it supplements them, it’s part of a larger, balanced transportation system, when you look at those opportunities, I’m very bullish on the future even if there’s some short-term setbacks. I think the trend line is clearly very positive.
Freep: One of the setbacks that we seem to have is that we have very little in terms of commuter rail in Michigan, if we have any, and we’re going against states that already have it. So that pushes up the beginning operating costs, and puts us at a competitive disadvantage in terms of per-rider cost. Will that factor, will cost per rider be downplayed in terms of potential economic benefit in the long term?
Porcari: It’s really too early to say on the specific cost-per-rider part. But it’s clear that if it’s part of a larger, longer-term plan, there are always startup costs involved. How that’s done is really a local option. The federal government is not going to dictate or even suggest how it should be done. What we want to do is let the solutions be local and provide federal assistance where we can.
Freep: So the cost per ridership wasn’t that great of a factor in losing –
Porcari: In this specific case, I don’t know. I’d have to go back and look, to tell you the truth. So I can’t answer that specific question.
Baggy Paragraphs: [Porcari had earlier mentioned to conferees how high-speed rail has made it possible for workers to commute from Barcelona to Madrid, and how this has helped to economically boost Barcelona.] Can you see a day when a person wakes up in Ann Arbor and goes to work in Chicago by riding the train?
Porcari: Absolutely. And if you look at Europe, a number of European countries, that’s exactly what has happened. And I used Spain as an example because they didn’t even have high-speed rail 15 years ago. But that’s clearly happening. And they used it as part of a larger economic development strategy where some of the more economically distressed parts of the country got service earlier. It’s actually succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest dreams in terms of economic development changes in the community. So it can be done. Yes, I can easily see that.”
Baggy Paragraphs: Twenty years?
Porcari: Well, I don’t want to offer any predictions because it comes down to local needs and the local will to get it done. This is not some Soviet-style Five Year Plan. This really is a locally based, locally, regionally based high-speed rail program.
Baggy Paragraphs: And in that local will, what can just the average person who’s interested do?
Porcari: Well, first of all, if you’re interested, support the local projects. Weigh in on them. You can do it at the national level. We have a strategic plan that just went out on our website, which is inviting comment. If there are specific transportation things, whether it’s high-speed rail or any other part of the transportation system, please comment.