Keeping rail options on track is wise policy
The less-than-great debate to determine Michigan’s continued subsidy of its Amtrak service misses some important points, chiefly that the millennial generation so avidly being recruited to this state (or begged not to depart) believes public transportation is a high priority. The “car state” just yesterday discovered the importance of public transportation, especially as related jobs and new business are increasingly built upon public transportation opportunities in the land of little.
Efforts to maintain, expand and create new public transportation options are each important for the communities served and the options provided. Amtrak is a day-tripper’s haven into southern lakeshore communities and into Chicago, but it is as much a service for business commuters to and from a regional hub of economic activity and partnerships. Businesses in the Grand Rapids region always have aligned more with Chicago than Detroit. Convenient transportation to the Windy City is as much a draw for millennials as the Lake Michigan shore.
Even with fare increases this year, the Amtrak Pere Marquette line has been sold out, with record ridership of more than 111,000 passengers on both the Pere and Kalamazoo Blue Water lines. Amtrak has logged a 60 percent increase in ridership over the past six years, and that is likely to continue given the sustained interest of generations younger than the boomers.
Efforts to grow and expand the service will continue to be pushed. Just last week, Holland Mayor Al McGeehan said he is thrilled with the service Amtrak has provided his community for the past 25 years, bringing passengers from Grand Rapids to Holland to Chicago each morning, but he is adamant that a train should also leave Chicago early each day, headed for the attractions West Michigan offers. That goal would surely be derailed with a revocation of state support for the line.
Perhaps more aggravating than lack of continued support for the Amtrak line is that state legislators are dragging their feet on yet another public transit alternative, and one that pays the state. In the week before Amtrak’s 25th anniversary celebration on Wealthy Street, Interstate Traveler Co. LLC was given a state hearing in Grand Rapids regarding environmental impact of its plan to build a high-speed passenger line that could include Grand Rapids. The Whitmore Lake-based business group is not asking for subsidies, just right-of-way for its $2 billion, investor-backed passenger and freight line connecting Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit. The high-speed system powered by hydrogen travels at up to 200 miles per hour. Founder Eric Sutton told the Business Journal this spring that the Interstate Traveler Hydrogen Super Highway system is “safe, clean, quiet, weatherproof and sand and ice proof, and creates hydrogen, creates clean water and creates and stores surplus power … and millions of green-paying jobs.”
Additionally, Michigan is one of the states uniquely suited to begin manufacture and production of rail cars (and lines) as Congress is poised to approve funding for construction of a high-speed rail system and intercity rail lines across the country.
It’s not an either-or issue; it is economic seed for new business, sustainability and recruitment.