Trains to Planes Without Automobiles

Traveling to and from Detroit Metropolitan Airport without a car is not easily done.

Joydeep Dasmunshi will tell you all about it. The University of Michigan Law School student flies in and out of Metro Airport about twice a month for school, business and family visits.

On a good day the 24-year-old can get a ride to the airport from a friend. A normal day means spending $20 on an airport shuttle. An expensive day means paying about $50 for a taxi. Long-term parking costs $10 a day.

A lot of other Metro Detroiters share Dasmunshi's pain. More than 36 million passengers flew through Metro Airport in 2005, making it the 11th largest airport in the nation and 17th largest in the world. Its total economic impact is estimated at $5.2 billion annually, making it a key economic engine for southeastern Michigan. A vast majority of the people who come to and from the airport do so with personal automobiles, using the facility's 20,000 parking spaces on its 6,700 acres.

There is no rapid transit system connecting to Metro Airport, unlike most major airports in the world. Most of them utilize light-rail, commuter-rail or bus-rapid-transit lines. Only two SMART bus lines stop at the airport. The one bus line that directly connects downtown Detroit to Metro Airport snakes through a number of downriver communities. That's more than Ann Arbor Transportation Authority offers. The furthest point east its bus lines stretch is to the edge of Belleville, several miles west of Metro.

"That's one thing we are sorely missing is a way to get to the airport," says State Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak, a leading advocate for improving mass transit in Metro Detroit.

Dasmunshi would jump at the chance to cut his commuting expenses and save himself the headache of traffic jams by boarding a commuter train to Metro. He regularly used public transit trains to get to and from the airport when he lived in Chicago. For Dasmunshi, riding the train is far cheaper and quicker than driving. "It is way more convenient in Chicago," he says.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is considering establishing a basic commuter rail service by the end of this year. The temporary starter line would utilize existing tracks to connect Metro to Detroit, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Dearborn. It's possible it could also connect Royal Oak, Troy/Birmingham and Pontiac.

That would mean connecting Metro Airport to seven of Metro Detroit's most vibrant downtowns, five of its largest sports stadiums, four of its major universities and two of the Big Three's headquarters, among other significant institutions. If done correctly, it could also mean spurring more dense and valuable commercial and residential development, cutting down air pollution and reigning in suburban sprawl.

"It can do a lot of things for our region," says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a mass transit-advocacy group. "It would be great for commuters going to Ann Arbor, downtown and Birmingham. It would also be great for entertainment venues and the universities, and show that we are a real modern city. Most people are shocked that we can't get to the airport without a personal car."

The leading option

SEMCOG originally considered three distinct modes of mass transportation to connect Ann Arbor and Detroit to Metro Airport – light rail, bus rapid transit and commuter rail – before settling on commuter rail late last year.

"The alternative everybody is most interested in is the commuter-rail option," says Carmine Palombo, director of transportation for SEMCOG.

It also appears to be the easiest and least expensive to implement. The corridor connecting Detroit, Ann Arbor and Metro is about 45 miles long, a sizable distance for any mass transit line.

Bus rapid transit usually requires exclusive lanes for its coaches. That means increasing congestion by removing major roadway or expressway lanes or spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build new lanes.

Light rail transit, such as streetcars, would also require a major construction project. Building it along the 45-mile-long corridor would also cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

TRU's Owens said both options are prohibitively expensive and would not be quick and convenient for riders because both usually have stops every half mile. Commuter rail would not be nearly as costly because it would use existing track and Amtrak stations. A station would be set up at Merriman Road just north of the airport with shuttle buses connecting to it.

"For many of us it seems that commuter rail is the only option," Owens says. "It's got to be convenient for people for it to be successful."

TRU originally proposed a hybrid model, combining commuter and light rail lines, for the corridor. A commuter line would run between Detroit and Ann Arbor with stops at Metro Airport, Dearborn and Ypsilanti. A light rail line would act as a feeder for the commuter line, running along Michigan Avenue from the Dearborn Amtrak station to Downtown Detroit and then up Woodward Avenue to the Amtrak station in New Center. The light rail option of that plan has been nixed but the plan for the commuter line looks like a likely option.

SEMCOG is looking at providing between six to 12 trips along the corridor per day, leasing services from Amtrak, coordinating bus service and possibly getting new trains loaned from the manufacturer.

Proponents of the commuter line say that alone is not enough. They are pushing for significant improvements to the track to help streamline service, extended hours to capture more riders interested in using it for events and nightlife and smooth coordination with bus service to make it more accessible.

Owens argues that it must be done right, not just cheap. She believes a slow, unreliable system could backfire and put the brakes on efforts to improve mass transit in Metro Detroit.

"The worse we could do is put in a bad transit line that nobody rides," Owens says. "Then everyone throws up their hands and goes, 'See, it won't work here,' and never tries again."


McNamara Terminal at Metro Airport

A Smart Bus

Amtrak Train and Conductor

Amtrak Train at the New Center Station

Riders on the Amtrak Train

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.
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