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Light Rail, Passenger Trains Make Sense for Traverse City

Take the train; it works

July 12, 1997 | By Arlin Wasserman
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The Corradino Group, a consultant to the Michigan Department of Transportation, recently published a cursory analysis that concluded that light rail and commuter rail service are not likely to be successful in Traverse City. Their memorandum asserted that redeveloping the rail system around Traverse City would not be funded by traditional State and Federal agencies, and that costs would range from $10 million to $20 million per mile for new rail lines. The memorandum also emphasized that Traverse City is smaller and has a lower population density than cities with successful programs.

In response, the Michigan Land Use Institute undertook a more thorough analysis, which included a review of rail service in communities similar in size to Traverse City, and reached markedly different conclusions. The Institute found that Traverse City can successfully implement light rail and passenger rail service. We also found that doing so will be less expensive than the Corradino memorandum indicates, and that the service will deliver significant benefits to the region’s economy and quality of life. The Institute also urges Traverse City and the state to undertake a study of similar communities as the first step to advance a full evaluation of light and commuter rail service.

Rail is an Important Service in Successful Small Metropolitan Communities
Across the country, communities that offer rail service find it is widely popular. Over 25 million people now use public transit, including light rail, for daily commuting. These riders are found not only in major cities, but also in smaller metropolitan areas with healthy economies. Successful small metropolitan areas incorporate rail service as an important part of their transportation systems.

Last month, Inc. Magazine published its annual list of the top 50 Small Metro “Hot Zones” for business development and expansion. Top ranking cities such as Las Vegas, Austin, Savannah, and Moorhead, Minnesota all are operating or starting light rail service. Las Vegas is one of the nation’s fastest growing economies. But it is avoiding expensive road construction by offering transit options. In Las Vegas, light rail and bus transit ridership is up seven-fold to 35 million trips per year. The fifty “Hot Zone” cities also are all served by passenger rail service.

The Corradino Group memorandum is weak in its analysis of light rail for small metropolitan areas. It cites only four light rail systems, all in communities with populations over 200,000, as examples of successful programs. But in the United States, several communities similar in size to Traverse City operate successful light rail programs. They include:

  • Bryan, Texas serving 58,263 residents spread over 30 square miles
  • Oshkosh, Wisconsin serving 58,935 residents spread over 21 square miles
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico serving 63,023 residents spread over 41 square miles

In 1997, 556 small metropolitan areas, all with populations under 200,000, operated public transit systems. Their average operating cost for light rail was competitive with bus service. The Institute also found the cost for operating light rail decreased almost 65% from 1993, as modern equipment became more widely available.

The Corradino Group also minimizes growing support in Michigan for passenger rail service. In fact, the Midwest High-Speed Rail network study, which reviews the potential for vastly improved passenger rail service between major Midwest cities, found that such service would be a success. Rail construction and upgrading of old rail lines in Michigan and other states is underway. Rail service between Lansing and Detroit, and cities in four other states is likely to begin in 2000. As support for high-speed rail has grown, the state has expanded the number of stations. Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids also will be stops along the new rail service.

The Historic Role of Traverse City as Center of Commerce in Northern Michigan
Traverse City is the hub of economic and civic activity for most of northwest lower Michigan. Its theaters, recreational facilities, downtown merchants, and community colleges all serve people living far beyond the city limits. The services offered in Traverse City meet the needs of much more than its 15,000 residents. The City has played this role over most of the past century.

Transportation services are no different. One prominent example is Cherry Capital Airport. Demand for air travel at this small metropolitan airport is much greater than one would expect. This is because Traverse City provides a link to state and national air travel for a large rural region. In the same way, Traverse City can expect passenger rail riders to come from around the region if the system connects them to the emergent Midwest High Speed Rail Network, and the national rail system.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Network conducted an extensive study to determine how far riders would travel to access passenger rail service. The answer: one hour. This means that ridership for passenger rail service could come to Traverse City from as far away as Charlevoix and Cadillac.

Recently, the Michigan Department of Transportation confirmed Traverse City’s significant regional role. As Michigan’s demand for mobility and travel increases, the state is proposing nearly a half billion dollars in new road building to meet future demand for travel around the area.

Rail is the Most Cost Effective Transportation Service
Reactivating or building new rail line is one of the most cost effective transportation investments a community can make. In general, the cost of acquiring land and building new rail is less than one-third the cost for a new two-lane road, and one-tenth the cost of a new four-lane road serving commercial development. Building new rail line may cost $1.2 million per mile, with local governments paying about $400,000 per mile. Upgrading old rail lines to modern passenger rail standards costs just over half as much. These costs are significantly below the $10 million to $20 million per mile used by the Corradino Group in their initial assessment.

In 1997, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and the Michigan Department of Transportation conducted a financial evaluation for installing regional rail service in southeast Michigan. In the past two years the Department also has made available cost estimates for building two- and four- lane roads in northern lower Michigan. The results were:

Item Cost per Mile

Upgrade old rail $700,000

Build new rail $1,200,000

Two-lane rural highway $7,000,000

Four-lane highway $11,700,000

Local governments do pay a higher portion of the cost for developing rail service than for building roads. Across the United States, since 1992, local governments have borne more than 30% of the cost of capital investment for rail, while state funding has declined to below 15% of the capital cost.

But given its lower overall cost, the Institute has found that light rail and passenger rail service is a relatively inexpensive transportation service to construct and a cost-effective service to operate.

In Michigan, state and regional transportation agencies are not always enthusiastic. Despite its relative low cost, rail transit too frequently is the first option eliminated from consideration in order to show that an agency values “cost-effectiveness.” This may be the mistaken basis for the Department’s sudden urgency to either increase use of the Ann Arbor rail lines in Traverse City or to abandon those lines.

Such a decision may forever preclude rail service in the Traverse City area without the extraordinary difficulty of assembling land for new corridors. But it is also an immediate call to determine what type of rail service is feasible for the region.

Next Step: Determining Feasibility
By every measure and forecast, the Grand Traverse region will be a fast growing metropolitan center in the coming years. It will be as large as other urban areas served successfully by passenger rail and operating light rail systems.

Rail service not only can play an integral role in serving transportation needs in the future. It can shape how the community will look. Rail transit is part of an overall development and accessibility strategy.

To determine rail’s success in meeting transportation, access, and other community goals, it is important to ask the right questions. Some of the answers are already evident. The important questions include:

Is rail transit part of a comprehensive strategy for accessibility and mobility?
The Grand Traverse County master plan calls for managed growth through land use plans that increase development density and promote village centers. This is precisely the approach needed to support passenger rail service and put riders in close and convenient proximity to rail stations. A managed growth approach emphasizing village centers also is the pattern of development needed to support a light rail system, placing a majority of the population only a few minutes from transit stops.

Is rail investment part of an integrated growth management plan? Will local leaders make decisions to support its success?
Rail is not part of the region’s current growth management plans. But future land use and development decisions must be made in concert with a plan to encourage rail ridership. This includes encouraging development near rail stops, and discouraging public investment that draws development away from rail corridors.

Supporters must implement a significant public education effort to build support among local leaders. Local officials must make a commitment to make decisions that support the long-term viability of rail service.

Is the rail service corridor in an area where there is sufficient existing and future demand?
In Traverse City, rail lines running along the Boardman River and East Grand Traverse Bay predate the road system. They parallel Garfield Road and U.S. 31-East. These are two of the region’s most heavily trafficked roads. The rail corridors clearly are in areas of high demand. They existed before the demand, and their presence shaped development. As part of a feasibility study, future growth projections must be conducted to determine if and where additional stops should be located.

Does the community generally support the system?
Last year’s passage of the Bay Area Transportation Authority millage to establish a fixed route bus system indicates community support for increased transit services. Nevertheless, to gain passenger rail service, the Institute believes a new public education effort must be part of promoting any new proposals.

Will the system increase overall access to jobs, markets, and services?
Yes. Traverse City is unique. Its high quality of life, based on abundant natural resources, makes it an attractive community. It is also home to a growing number of businesses that choose to relocate to the Grand Traverse region. High use of the Cherry Capital Airport demonstrates high demand for long distance travel.

Providing passenger rail service that links Traverse City to the emerging Midwest High Speed Rail network would help meet the long-standing need to increase access to larger urban centers such as Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The extent of this benefit should be determined as a part of a detailed feasibility study.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
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