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Issues of the Environment: Ann Arbor fighting MDOT plans to fence off Amtrak rail corridor

Amtrak "Wolverine"
Chad Kainz
Amtrak "Wolverine"


  • MDOT is planning to build a substantial metal fence along the railroad tracks that run through Ann Arbor, and nearly every group in Ann Arbor is opposed to it. The barrier will impede access to the Border-to-Border Trail, and MDOT has not brought solutions to the table that would enhance the accessibility of natural features and parks for people or wildlife. 
  • From a purely environmental standpoint, MDOT argues that their studies have not shown that the fence will damage endangered species. However, it has been proposed that MDOT could be violating the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) they have with the MDNR related to wildlife impacts or alterations to the ecosystem as a whole.
  • MDOT officials said their aim is to keep pedestrians and train passengers safe. But without a way to get across the tracks where people want to cross, residents expressed concerns it will result in more people, for example, walking along the edge of Huron River Drive and more people and deer getting hit by cars. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2023/10/this-is-unacceptable-ann-arbor-rails-against-mdot-railroad-fence-plan.html)
  • There are several sections of the railroad track that are frequently crossed by pedestrians and bikers traveling between parks, but the areas between Nichols Arboretum and the Border-to-Border Trail pathway to Gallup Park, and the section between West Huron River Drive and the Barton Pond nature trail area are probably the most frequented. The city’s capital improvement plan — a wish list of projects the city would like to fund — shows the Arboretum-Gallup underpass as a potentially $4.5 million project for 2024-25, with funding possibly coming from the city, state, federal government and University of Michigan, as well as developer contributions. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2022/06/after-train-crash-ann-arbor-weighs-need-for-pedestrian-underpass.html)
  • Community feedback has centered around why MDOT, a taxpayer-funded, government entity, is insisting on this project while seemingly ignoring all forms of community input including, a change.org petition with nearly 6,000 signatures as of this writing, universal opposition from city and county officials, and previous written feedback to MDOT stating the fence is unwanted and unwarranted. 
  • Deputy City Administrator John Fournier clarified in an email that MDOT reached out to city staff about the project a while back, but the city and MDOT didn’t see eye to eye. “Our response was to advocate for changes to the rail connection that would prioritize pedestrian safety and quality bicycle access points,” he said. “MDOT’s response to us was to tell us that they were not considering any installations other than a fence, and that they would not be supportive of pedestrian or bike infrastructure. It was clear that there was no opportunity to effectuate program changes, and so we told them we weren’t interested in the project and stepped away from their planning.” (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2023/10/this-is-unacceptable-ann-arbor-rails-against-mdot-railroad-fence-plan.html)
  • MDOT plans to introduce high-speed rail with speeds over 100mph between Albion and Dearborn, but the speeds would likely be slower going through Ann Arbor because there are numerous curves in the city. “You have to allow for folks to get under and across railroads if you’re going to have high-speed rail,” Erica Briggs told MDOT officials, arguing the project could be done in a thoughtful way with limited fencing and with underpasses or overpasses.” Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2023/10/this-is-unacceptable-ann-arbor-rails-against-mdot-railroad-fence-plan.html)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. In 2016, there was a call to build a wall. Now, that was the Trump promise at the southern border of the country. Right now, the Michigan Department of Transportation is planning a project that thousands in Ann Arbor consider to be the state building a wall. This is Issues of the environment on WEMU. And what I'm talking about is MDOT's plan to build fencing along the Amtrak railroad path through Ann Arbor. As designed, it would cut off unofficial and unauthorized pedestrian railroad crossings and, as some describe it, build a wall right through the city. Our guest this morning is on top of the ongoing discussions. Erica Briggs is a member of Ann Arbor City Council representing the city's Fifth Ward. And thank you for making time to update us today.

Ann Arbor City Council member Erica Briggs.
Erica Briggs
Ann Arbor City Council member Erica Briggs.

Erica Briggs: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

David Fair: Now, you've heard me referred to it as a wall through Ann Arbor as many in the community are doing. Is that what you consider it to be?

Erica Briggs: I do. Yeah, this is a high security fencing that would be approximately six miles in length over two segments, and it would disrupt access for both wildlife and people.

David Fair: So, let's go back to where this started. MDOT informed the city of its plans, telling officials it's an effort to protect pedestrian safety as Amtrak plans high-speed travel with trains getting to 100 miles per hour on its route. Pedestrian safety does seem reasonable, but with its planned fencing, it makes no accommodation for those crossings we've discussed. Why are the city's requests for adding such crossings to the plan has been dismissed.

Erica Briggs: Well, I think this is one of the challenging pieces. Obviously, we're very supportive of the introduction of high-speed rail, rail access, multimodal transportation. But I think MDOT rail has been looking at this through a pretty narrow lens. They're looking to simply solve their issue of individuals on the railroad track and not thinking holistically about why people are on the railroad track, which is, essentially, that there haven't been legal and safe access points across the stretch of railroad. And so, the more effective way to address this would be to actually go crossing back to a simpler solution and then think about our events.

David Fair: Since the year 2020, there have been seven train/pedestrian accidents in the area and four fatalities. And everyone agrees that's too many. Do you fear that the protective fencing may actually end up in more pedestrian incidents but with cars, as more people have to walk along Huron River Drive?

Erica Briggs: Well, I don't know what the impact of this is on pedestrian safety, but I do know that all previous attempts to install barriers that have found a way through pretty significantly. We've put in place concrete there. And that's because people want to access points of interest on the other side of the tracks. And so, the reality is we need to focus in on creating safe and legal crossings, not just for people, but also to make sure that the wildlife has continued to have access across this corridor as well.

David Fair: And I do want to talk wildlife in a moment, but I want to ask one more question about the human element of this.

Erica Briggs: Yeah.

David Fair: And that is the fact of the matter that there are plenty of people who are illegally crossing the railroads at this time and putting themselves and the trains in potential danger. Is that an Amtrak and MDOT issue, or is it a matter of lack of city and police enforcement and accommodation, or a bit of all of the above?

Erica Briggs: Well, I think it's probably a little bit of all of the above. We need to make investments in safe access along and across the railroad, and that's something that's been a high priority for Washtenaw County and the city of Ann Arbor, in terms of the development of the Border-to-Border Trail. And so, that's one of our biggest concerns is that, especially along the segment of Huron River Drive, there's been a longstanding project to advance the Border to Border trail there, and we're clear that MDOT installs a fence here that that will impede progress of the Border to Border trail development and also make it more expensive to do that because they're putting a fence up at exactly the areas that have been planned for development of that trail.

David Fair: We're talking with Ann Arbor City councilperson Erica Briggs on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. You raised the issue of wildlife. There are a good number of people who have raised concerns about the potential environmental impacts and the impacts on wildlife as well. Do you have a sense of how many trees and how much vegetation might be removed to accommodate this proposed fencing or planned fencing?

Erica Briggs: Yeah, the details of the project are not out yet. So, in terms of the impact on trees and vegetation, that isn't known yet. What we do know is that this will have an impact on the ecosystem. There are obviously humans trying to get across the tracks, and so are wildlife as well. And so, especially with a river on the other side of the tracks, we know that this is an area that wildlife will want to continue to access. And we have nature areas also. So, we already have a pretty substantial barrier, which is a road for wildlife. And it's putting up a high-security, very tall fence, which will also be very disruptive. U.S. Department of Transportation has studied what the impact would be on endangered species and said there would not be an impact. But this ecosystem is comprised of a lot more creature than just endangered animals.

David Fair: Are there any concerns that--well, the fencing prevents area wildlife from crossing--that there would also then become a potential overpopulation of some species in concentrated parts of the city?

Erica Briggs: Well, I think, again, we just don't know what the impacts of this would be because it hasn't been studied. And so, the resources and guidance that I've looked at have said that landowners and government agencies should be very cautious about installing fences and recognize that there will be an impact on ecosystems that are fragmented and isolated ecosystems. And, you know, we're not sure what the impacts are going to be, but we can't anticipate that it would be negative just like it would be with humans.

David Fair: You mentioned that MDOT did its own study that shows that endangered species would not be impacted, but some believe that could be violating terms of a memorandum of understanding that it has with the Department of Natural Resources about wildlife impacts or alterations to the ecosystem. Is that something the city is going to further explore?

Erica Briggs: I don't know enough about the details of that to anticipate, you know, what the next steps are on this. What is good news is that Michigan Department of Transportation has recently said that they've been listening. They've recognized that there is a lot of public concern about this project and that they are willing to change the scope of this project and extend the timeline to start working with the local community and residents to address a lot of outstanding questions.

David Fair: Once again, our Issues of the Environment conversation with Ann Arbor City Councilmember Erica Briggs continues on 89 one WEMU. On October 16th, Ann Arbor City Council did pass a resolution opposing the plans. That supplements an online citizen petition effort opposing the plan as well that, I believe, has about 6000 signatures now. What if any impact do you think those resolutions might have, or has it already had the impact of MDOT reassessing how it's going to take public considerations into account?

Erica Briggs: I think they've had a big impact. Michigan Department of Transportation of Rail--their office of rail--was really moving forward with this project. And they held a public meeting in September that, essentially, would be characterized as simply asking for feedback on which type of fence to purchase. And since then, resident engagement on this issue, the close to 6000 individuals who have said that this type of project is not welcome in our community, the fact that our city council unanimously opposed this, anticipate that Washtenaw County is also going to be introducing a resolution in November as well, I think it has made Michigan Department of Transportation realize that they need to partner with the local community to find a good solution to their problems and also to advancing all of our shared goals, which is, obviously, safety, but also access--legal access.

David Fair: And to what level is the city willing to partner with MDOT to assure that there are safe passageways under and over without further inhibiting wildlife as well?

Erica Briggs: Yeah, we are 100% willing to come to the table on this. There is a real interest in the park staff, both at the county and the city level, to be working in partnership with MDOT. I know that there is interest from transportation staff and city council, so we're ready and willing to come to the table with a good solution.

David Fair: So, the construction of the fence hasn't begun yet. I imagine that, for some, that means there is hope that altering the fencing plans will take place. Do you have specific areas where your hope lies? Is it in those conversations that have yet to take place?

Erica Briggs: Yeah, I think it's in position. We have yet to take a look at what funding sources can be used. Obviously, we have a lot of efforts underway locally in fundraising that's been happening. Huron Water Pathways Initiative--the HWPI--has been working in partnership to come up with funding for the Border-to-Border Trail. So, we have already had plans locally to advance the Border-to-Border Trail. And I think that when the government comes to the table with additional resources, we can address additional problems to make sure that we're improving safety, but also improving access.

David Fair: Well, there's going to be a lot of folks watching very closely and paying very close attention, and we will be among them. So, we'll have the opportunity to talk about this again. Thank you so much for the time and bringing us up to speed today.

Erica Briggs: Thank you. And thanks for raising awareness on this issue.

David Fair: That is Ann Arbor City Council member Erica Briggs. She represents the city's Fifth Ward and has been our guest on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. For more information on today's topic, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and we cover new topics for you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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