The City of Ann Arbor is planning on turning the top of the Argo dam into a pedestrian bridge between Argo Park on the north side and the west bank of the river adjacent to North Main Street. According to Amy Kuras of the Parks and Recreation Department, the required improvements to the dam will be made in the summer of 2003. These include accessible ramps on both ends and improved guardrails, as well as a path connecting the dam to Lakeshore Drive and Bandemer Park. This will be a very nice addition to the parks in the area and will give runners and pedestrians the opportunity to enjoy a traffic-free closed loop between Bandemer and Argo parks, very much like in Boston-Cambridge, Massachusetts (including the crew teams rowing!). However, as a useful means of transportation between the north side and downtown it is lacking because there is no place to cross the railroad tracks after crossing the dam without going north up to Lakeshore Drive, about 3/8 of a mile. This would add about 3/4 of a mile to a trip downtown, enough to discourage many would-be pedestrians and cyclists.
Click here to see an annotated aerial photo of the area. (You may want to arrange windows so you can look at the map while you read this.) The path designed by the city will connect the west end of the dam to Lakeshore Drive, and is shown in yellow. This will definitely be a nice path for walking and running, passing between the railroad tracks and the river. Unfortunately, downtown is the other way. A simple at-grade path connecting directly to Main Street would be the simplest solution, but Ms. Kuras indicated that Conrail is strongly opposed to any more crossings. I suggest that we explore the possibility of extending this new path to the southeast (green) to a point directly north of the intersection of Depot Street and Fourth Avenue. A pedestrian tunnel could be constructed under the tracks at this point, connecting the new path to Fourth Avenue, which is a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly route to downtown, especially the popular destinations of Kerrytown, the Farmer's Market, and the People's Food Coop. The entrance on the south (downtown) side could be at grade, since the tracks are elevated perhaps twelve feet above the ground on this side. The north side entry would require ramp(s) down from the path alongside the tracks. I suggest that very gradual slopes be used since there is plenty of room. This would make for easier entry and exit for pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchairs, especially in bad weather, and would make the tunnel entrance visible all along the path, lessening any safety concerns. Eventually, the path along the tracks could be extended past Broadway all the way to Gallup Park.
In addition to providing a pleasant and safe way for north side residents to get to and from downtown by bicycle or on foot (especially important during the next two years while the Broadway bridges are rebuilt), the tunnel and path would provide easy access to Argo and Bandemer parks and their connecting paths to walkers, runners, and cyclists living in the downtown area.
The lot on Depot Street (115 Depot) which would connect the proposed tunnel to Depot Street is currently vacant and is owned by William C. Martin, president of First Martin Corporation and athletic director at the University of Michigan. Only the easternmost portion of the lot would be affected by the path, and the property's value might well be enhanced by being adjacent to the path. It could be an attractive site for a small grocery store, a restaurant or bar, or a bicycle shop. (The Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society begins most of their weekend rides at Wheeler Park, just across the street.)
Click here for some pictures of the area. I've also made a small sketch of the tunnel.
Getting more ambitious, the tunnel could be part of a new cross-town multi-use path along the Conrail tracks. I have described this in some detail here.
I searched the Internet (thanks Google!) for comparable tunnel projects. One was recently completed in Iowa City: you can read about it and see a photo here. According to John Yapp of the Iowa City planning department, the project cost $350,000, which included $210,000 in transportation enhancement funds. Rail service was never disrupted during construction. Engineering for the project was done by Shoemaker & Haaland Professional Engineers, 160 Holiday Road, Coralville, Iowa, 52241 (319-351-7150).