Economic Development, Government, and Travel & Tourism

Bringing back coast-to-coast passenger rail

June 19, 2015
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Bringing back coast-to-coast passenger rail
A final report on passenger rail possibilities between Holland and Detroit is expected in December. ©

It’s been more than 40 years since someone was able to hop a passenger train from one side of Michigan to the other, but the wheels are in motion to once again fill train platforms with those traveling from one coast to the other via intercity train transit.

Michigan By Rail launched a study in March to examine the demand and feasibility of redeveloping passenger rail service between Holland, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit.

Michigan By Rail is being led by the Michigan Environmental Council in partnership with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and Michigan Department of Transportation.

The consulting firm Transportation Economics & Management Systems Inc. has been hired to complete the technical analysis.

The study will analyze travel patterns, demographic trends, cost estimates and existing conditions of rail infrastructure.

The $100,000 study received financial support in the form of an $80,000 federal grant and $20,000 provided by local community organizations within the Holland-to-Detroit corridor.

A final report is expected in December, which will help Michigan By Rail determine if there is enough support to move forward.

The biggest factors in making that determination will be how much the project would cost and if there is enough ridership to support it.

As part of the process, Michigan By Rail is conducting 16 public engagement meetings throughout the state this summer to gather input from local communities.

Elizabeth Treutel, policy associate with the Michigan Environmental Council, said the public outreach process has a twofold mission: one, to inform the public about the study being conducted, and two, to find out what people desire in rail service within the corridor.

“The first part is the sharing of information,” Treutel said. “We want to make sure people understand what the study is, what it’s meant to do, the timeline and other details.

“The second piece is public engagement. Getting a lot of input and feedback is a big component of this study. We are going to be asking people where they travel, what they would like the service to look like, ideas and concerns they might have, and any other information they are willing to share with us.”

She said the reason the corridor is being re-examined for passenger rail service after 40 years has a lot to do with increased train ridership and an interest in alternative transportation options.

“We’ve really seen an increase in the ridership on our existing Amtrak services,” she said. “For example, from 2002 to 2013, we’ve actually seen about a 78 percent increase in ridership on those services.

“There is service connecting Grand Rapids and Chicago, Port Huron and Chicago, and Detroit and Chicago, and that number has been staying strong since 2013. That is a trend that has made us consider looking at additional passenger rail service in Michigan.

“The other component is, in 2010, the Michigan Environmental Council worked with the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers and MDOT to conduct several public forums around Michigan to find out what people wanted to see in their passenger rail system. This was a key theme that came out, and it was included as a recommendation in MDOT’s state rail plan to do some additional studies on this corridor.”

Treutel said there are several projected economic benefits of reviving the corridor’s passenger rail service, including reconnecting the state’s job centers, hospitals and educational institutions, as well as options for in-state travel and tourism growth.

Targeting millennials is also a factor with potential economic impact.

“We know millennials look at three major components when they consider where to go,” she explained. “One of the top three components they look at is if there is public transit and transportation options available. We think this could play a major role in keeping our educated, talented workforce here because they will have that option.”

Three possible routes have been proposed, with the variations occurring between Lansing and Detroit.

Additional stops could occur in Jackson, Howell, Ann Arbor and Pontiac. All three routes include stops in Wayne and Dearborn.

Treutel said although the study proposes three routes, additional options may be considered in future studies if the project moves forward.

“This is the exploratory study, and we decided to narrow it down to these three routes,” she said.

She noted the routes that have been selected all have existing rail infrastructure, which is important to the final cost of the project, which has yet to be determined.

“They are mostly owned by private railroad companies,” she said.

A consultant was hired recently to inspect the infrastructure.

“He was pleasantly surprised that the quality is pretty good,” Treutel said.

“Freight traffic currently runs on these lines, and there is a lower standard of quality for freight rail versus passenger rail, so some of the quality will have to be upgraded if this moves forward.”

So far there has been a lot of support for reviving coast-to-coast rail service, according to Treutel. She noted it will be important to determine if the study finds the cost and ridership components support the project.

She said the timeline is dependent on a number of factors, but right now seven to 10 years is a realistic number.

“The political will to move this concept forward is going to be huge in whether or not this moves forward — and, if it does, in how fast it moves,” she said.

She said so far local and state government leaders have shown support for the project.

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