GVMC supports new rail plan
Members of the Grand Valley Metro Council recently got onboard to back a resolution that could result in a leg of Amtrak's Pere Marquette service running on high-speed rail.
The city of New Buffalo, backed by Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation, has applied for a federal TIGER grant worth $56 million that would make track improvements and allow the Pere Marquette to top 100 miles-per-hour between New Buffalo and Chicago.
"We're very happy to have this increased speed," said Tim Heffner, MDOT director of rail.
"It will help promote the future growth of this line, as well," added Amtrak's Ron DeCook.
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said supporting the proposal was a no-brainer. "It seems to be an easy one for us to support," he said.
TIGER is an acronym for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, and it is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has made $527 million available nationwide for transportation projects.
GVMC Executive Director John Weiss said the grant money would be spent on track construction and design enhancements. "These improvements will eventually improve service for our Pere Marquette line by making a section of high-speed track southwest of New Buffalo available for use by our Grand Rapids-to-Chicago Pere Marquette riders," he said.
"In addition, the grant will provide for the construction of additional track, or double tracking, to separate freight and passenger train scheduling conflicts, which could result in increased service to our region and help facilitate the potential of a Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo service in the future," added Weiss.
A Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo line would likely originate in Holland. It is being considered because high-speed track is already in place in the Cereal City, so a much longer stretch of the Pere Marquette's 176-mile journey would move along at a much faster clip. Heffner said the train could reach 110 mph.
"Such a route would not negatively impact the southwestern Michigan communities or affect their passenger rail service. It would, however, provide travel benefits for passengers departing from Holland and Grand Rapids," said Andrea Dewey, GVMC transportation planner.
DeCook said the addition of the high-speed track could lead to more Pere Marquette runs, like maybe two daily round trips instead of the current one per day. Heffner said it's easier to add another train to the route because it's the shortest of the three Amtrak runs in Michigan.
Heffner also said more analysis is needed, including the environmental effect of a second train, before making the change because the state picks up a portion of Amtrak's operating cost in Michigan. "What it allows for is increased efficiencies and speed for the Pere Marquette from New Buffalo into Chicago," he said. "We can handle reverse trips better."
The Pere Marquette began its GR-to-Chicago route in 1984; the train carried 106,662 passengers during the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. That ridership figure represented an increase of 4.7 percent from 2010, and ticket revenue in 2011 was $3.2 million, up by 9.8 percent from the previous fiscal year. Amtrak's Michigan runs, which include the Wolverine and the Blue Water, had $27.7 million in ticket revenue last year.
Amtrak owns 10 miles of the current Pere Marquette track, while freight lines CSX and Norfolk Southern own the rest. Dewey said the TIGER grant would result in fewer delays for the Pere Marquette because the train wouldn't be competing with freight traffic on Amtrak-owned track between New Buffalo and Porter, Ind., which is the section that would offer the higher speed.
But much of what is in the future for the Pere Marquette could be derailed next year. Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate, said in Grand Rapids that he plans to end funding for Amtrak if he wins the November election.