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Comparable train project sputters

While proponents of a commuter rail service connecting Livingston and Washtenaw counties gather this week to review a feasibility study, another similar project is sputtering along some 550 miles away.

Comparable train project sputters

By Kristofer Karol • DAILY PRESS & ARGUS • August 3, 2008

For almost two years, the Music City Star, the commuter rail service for the Nashville, Tenn., area, has fought financial woes, and has struggled to attract riders and get them to their final destinations.

In many ways, the Tennessee line is similar to the proposed Howell-to-Ann Arbor line, down to the length, estimated costs, number of stops and projected ridership.

Yet reality has been a rough ride for the Music City Star. Actual ridership started at only 550, far below projected numbers of more than 1,400. Daily ridership is still hovering in the 800s and has forced the system to embark on an expensive and unbudgeted campaign to attract new riders.

The lower-than-projected ridership is the main reason why the Tennessee line has a $2 million annual funding gap.

Is this a cautionary tale for the so-called WALLY — Washtenaw-Livingston — line, which is projecting a similar 1,300 riders?

Both services also used the Virginia-based R.L. Banks & Associates for their studies, which will be presented separately to both county government boards in Michigan later this week.

That company provided Nashville-area officials an early study that largely analyzed possible routes. Another firm was later brought in and provided more updated ridership figures.

Diane Thorne, executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority, which runs the Music City Star, as well as its accompanying bus system, said early ridership numbers were only 540 — a far cry from the 1,479 projected in a feasibility study.

The Tennessean newspaper reported train officials plan on in-creasing ridership numbers to 1,000 by the end of summer, and they have spent $168,000 more than anticipated on marketing.

"I think this was the first commuter rail line in the state of Tennessee, so it's a totally new concept," Thorne said. "So maybe they didn't take that into account when projecting ridership numbers."

Getting riders to their final destinations has also been an issue in Nashville.

Thorne said bus service was required to get Nashville's train passengers around the city and was an underestimated expense. It costs roughly $120,000 per bus per year to move people from the station around town, she noted.

"You just get so focused on getting the train going, so we're just working on doing that," Thorne said.

One of the concerns for the WALLY line is that the proposed Ann Arbor terminal is not conveniently located for major commuter destinations.

Still, Thorne said the Nashville rail line has been a worthwhile project.

"What we're finding ... is the public is beginning to really demand public transportation choices," she said.

Music City Star officials have relied on local, state and federal funding, as well as fare-box receipts, the latter of which cover about 20 percent of expenses.

The key, Thorne said, is trying to survive the first two years: Once a system has two years' worth of data, it can apply for additional federal funding.

Other funding is also available to areas with a metropolitan statistical area population of 750,000 or more.

Nashville fell just short of that mark based on 2000 U.S. Census Bureau data. According to 2000 census data, the Ann Arbor metropolitan statistical area had a population of 578,736.

Bill Rogers, chairman of the Livingston County Board of Commissioners, said he found of some Nashville's story to be interesting.

"Nashville probably has a similar status in regards to mass transit that we do," Rogers said. "We killed mass transit back in the '50s in the state. Nashville is relatively new and bustling."

Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Kristofer Karol at (517) 552-2835 or at kkarol@gannett.com.


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