Rail boosters push for more train service

December 12, 2010
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LANSING — Advocates for better transportation in Michigan say the state needs more federal aid and better planning to accommodate all-time highs in train ridership.

Amtrak reported that its ridership nationwide is higher than ever: 28.7 million passengers in 2009-10.

President Barack Obama recently proposed $50 billion in federal aid to transportation, including passenger rail service.

Although transportation officials acknowledge that federal money might not be available soon, if ever, Michigan has definite needs.

“With the report, there’s some good concepts,” said Tim Fischer, deputy policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council. “Still, the specifics are what’s important.”

For example, Fischer said, infrastructure banks, or loan programs serving transportation development, are a necessity.

He said Michigan also needs to rev up its efforts with intra-city passenger rail and commuter train systems. An online forum, Michigan By Rail, is attempting to get people to discuss transportation issues, he said.

“We’re asking the question to Michigan citizens: ‘What do you want to see in your rail system?’” he said. “What we’re hearing, uniformly throughout the state, is that people want to see their passenger rails better connected to the rest of the state.”

Fischer said state residents are asking for more direct train routes, but Amtrak has only three lines and 25 stations in Michigan. None of the lines serves Northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula. They run between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Pontiac and Port Huron.

Improving intrastate travel is No. 1 on the list for John Langdon, who is governmental affairs director for the Michigan Association of Railway Passengers and who lives in Holland.

“We need to increase the frequency of trains,” said Langdon. “The benefits would be bringing tourism and business to Michigan by rail.”

According to Amtrak, the Pere Marquette train from Chicago reaches its destination at Grand Rapids at 10:20 p.m. “Business travelers need schedules that would work for their schedule,” Langdon said. “You’d have to spend two nights before you could get any work done.”

Langdon proposes that a train from Chicago arrive in Holland no later than 10 a.m. and in Grand Rapids before noon. That timeline, he said, would bring more business to the state and allow tourists to jump off and spend a day in Southwest Michigan beach towns such as New Buffalo and St. Joseph.

“The bottom line is, any time Amtrak has increased frequency in any part of the nation, there’s a dramatic increase in ridership,” he said.

He said the New Buffalo station saw a 302 percent increase in passengers after a new station opened nearer to the beach. He attributes a recent uptick to commuters working in Chicago who have settled in the area.

“There’s no question in my mind that we need to at least show commitment so we can prove we should be provided with” more federal grants, Langdon said.

Larry Karnes, Michigan Department of Transportation freight policy specialist, said a federally mandated state rail plan is in the works and is expected to be finished next June.

“It will identify the issues that are facing people in passenger rail, the needed service and the resources available,” he said.

Karnes said Michigan last updated its rail plan in the early 1980s.

The rail passenger system gets a state subsidy, and that money is extremely limited, Karnes said.

“Michigan has been in the bottom 20 percent compared with other states for mass transportation funding for the past 40 years,” said Bill Shreck, communications director at the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Fischer said if public transit is implemented and residents use it rather than driving, the cost of public transportation maintenance might be less than the cost of widening and maintaining highways.

“It’s cheaper to fund public transportation by far than it is to expand highways,” he said. “Those are costs that we as a state have chosen to invest in. Those don’t last forever.”

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