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Time for Better Railroads in Michigan?

Fed’s big bucks, local forums build interest in rail transit, freight

July 19, 2010 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

University of Texas
  In the 1920s Detroit’s interurban railway connected Port Huron, Flint, Ann Arbor, Toledo, and many other cities in the region.

The automobile drove Michigan’s economy for most of the last century. That singular emphasis on cars, though, left the Auto State with a transportation system ill equipped for the 21st century.

Crumbling highways and bridges, their stubbornly high maintenance costs, and chronic traffic congestion signal that, when it comes to transportation, Michigan’s model no longer works.

Michigan is hardly alone, but some other states with similar problems have taken a different approach to solving the problem. Many have turned to passenger rail to help them tame traffic, congestion, and clean air problems, spur economic and jobs growth, curb oil dependence, and give people more choices for getting around.

Rail is by no means a new solution in Michigan. In the 1920s, the state had over 10,000 miles of track carrying both freight and passengers; today, it has just 3,600 miles, with passengers riding on just 500 miles of it.

But Michigan is starting to show renewed interest in building better railroads.

New improvements to its scant intercity passenger rail system began this spring, funded by federal stimulus dollars. Detroit, the only large American city without an urban rail system, now has several long-postponed commuter rail projects in development. And, after proposing serious cuts in support to Amtrak passenger rail in the state last year, Governor Jennifer Granholm’s latest budget proposes full funding for the current passenger rail system.

Federal dollars are helping out, too. Due to new funding requirements, the state must update its master rail plan for the first time in 30 years. However, given the state Legislature’s history of indifferenceto public transit, lawmakers may not support the governor’s budget unless pro-rail people speak up.

Northern Michigan residents have a unique opportunity this week to send a message to Lansing: a public “Michigan By Rail” forum in Traverse City. It is one of nine that a number of non-profit advocacy groups, including the Michigan Land Use Institute, are staging around the state. Each will look closely at Michigan’s rail system and prospects for transforming it into a robust, popular enterprise.

The groups hope that the forums will lead to strong citizen response when, as part of updating its master plan for the feds, the state holds its own hearings on Michigan’s rail future.

A Budding Rail Revival?
That hope seems more realistic than it did a decade ago. According to officials at the Michigan Department of Transportation, an agency survey four years ago for the state long-range planrevealed a big jump in interest in public transit, including rail, according to MDOT Director Kirk Steudle.

Mr. Steudle also pointed out that ridership on the state’s three Amtrak passenger rail lines grew 50 percent in less than a decade, from 457,000 passengers in 2000 to 724,000 passengers in 2008.

He added that the business class sections of trains running between Michigan and Chicago regularly sell out, perhaps because the rising cost of gas and parking means that “riding the train is just cheaper.”

But Mr. Steudle added that the progress also reflects that Amtrak is “becoming more reliable, and [that] rail is getting national attention. President Obama is trying to get the system running. It’s a form of advertising, just that they’re talking about it and putting money into it.”

Tim Fischer, deputy policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, another sponsor of the Michigan By Rail forums, said the big 2008 jump in gas prices was a wake up call, particularly in this auto-dependent state.

“When gas hit $4, we realized that we’re stranded without transportation options,” Mr. Fischer said. “It was a very palpable loss of mobility. It was a jolt.”

Michigan: Unready for Prime Time
Now, with that jolt still fresh in many peoples minds, the federal government is, for the first time ever, investing heavily in high-speed rail: $8 billion from last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and $2.5 billion from this year’s 2010 budget will jumpstart a number of projects.

States are clearly hungry for passenger rail funding. Forty states, including Michigan, submitted over $57 billion in proposals, seven times the amount allocated under ARRA.

But Michigan did not do well; it requested $1 billion but received $40 million to upgrade three train stations. According to Mr. Fischer, that shortfall was due to insufficient political will in Lansing.

“We had the demand but not the political support,” he said. “While our applications were sitting in front of the Federal Rail Administration, our governor put forward a budget that was about 25 percent of what we needed to operate our current system. That sent a strong message that we don’t support the current system.”

Mr. Fischer said the $40 million was still a valuable investment, even though it is a relatively small part of a $250 million grant shared by Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

“Most of the $250 million in stimulus money will go to uncorking the bottleneck in Chicago,” he explained, referring to the long waits Amtrak trains often experience before pulling into Union Station. “Some of our trains already hit high speed, but that doesn’t matter when trains have to pull over to the side and wait for freight to pass.”

Mr. Steudle agrees. “The biggest improvement we can make to the Detroit-Chicago line is in Illinois and Indiana,” he said. “What good does it do to speed across Michigan then wait in Indiana?”

Four Projects for Detroit
Undaunted by Washington’s funding decisions, however, rail advocates in metro Detroit are planning projects that could attract more funding in next year’s round of federal transportation grants.

One project, dubbed M-1 Rail, is unique: Private funding by business and philanthropists, to the tune of $125 million, for a 3.4-mile line along Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. Investors see it as the first step in bringing light rail to the city—and attracting federal dollars. Construction could start this fall.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) manages another budding project, the Detroit-Metro Airport-Ann Arbor commuter train. It is quite modest: it’s meant to demonstrate how rapid transit might serve southeast Lower Michigan by collecting ridership numbers for future planning.

That project’s history reflects the difficulty of bringing passenger railroad to Michigan: Although planning began more than 10 years ago, SEMCOG recently dropped a firm start date and said that, initially, service will be offered only for special events, like University of Michigan football games.

A planned commuter rail connection between Ann Arbor and Howell—the Washtenaw-Livingston Line, or “WALLY”—has also seen delays.

WALLY, which enjoys strong local government, business, and citizen support, would provide relief for travelers of congested US-23; planners say that is cheaper than widening the highway.

But it needs three years of full funding as a demonstration project in order to eventually secure federal funds. A raft of local governments and development agencies have pledged funds and the University of Michigan and local U.S. EPA laboratory say they would purchase passes for their employees because it would cut their parking expenditures.

Consultants say WALLY could start up with 11 to 16 months of securing full funding.

The state is making some plans, too: an “intermodal freight terminal” in Detroit, where freight would move between trucks, trains, and boats. Michigan will invest $650 million, making it the state’s biggest rail freight project.

Mr. Steudle emphasized that, without a strong freight train system, passenger rail does not have a chance.

“You have to have a system that effectively and efficiently moves both people and goods,” he said.

A Boon for Northern Michigan?
While local and state officials and business leaders push for regional rail projects, Larry Karnes, a freight policy specialist for MDOT, is working on the Michigan state rail plan, required to qualify for more Washington funding.

The plan, according to Mr. Karnes, must inventory the existing rail system, analyze environmental and economic impacts, and identify future projects and long-range investments.

“The rail plan can’t just be a wish list,” Mr. Karnes said. “It must be realistic and achievable” and include both freight and passenger rail systems.

Some rail advocates in northern Michigan see the new rail activity emerging in southern Michigan, combined with the development of a new state rail plan, as an opportunity for their region, too. They say that the strong support for public transportation revealed by the 2008 Grand Vision citizen workshops makes a north-south rail line an achievable goal.

MEC’s Fischer said that might get a good statewide reception.

“Residents are crying out for the state to be connected,” Mr. Fischer asserted. “They don’t want the divide between south and north and east and west. People in Royal Oak want to vacation in the north. People in the northwest want to explore Detroit. Right now our system is geared toward moving people to Chicago, and we’d like to invest in our local communities.”

Kim Pontius, executive vice president of another local forum sponsor, the Traverse Area Association of Realtors, believes that first-class public transit can attract young professionals to the region.

“Nationally speaking, when young people are looking at a house, the first thing they ask is how far to the transit stop,” he said. “Why? They don’t have to buy a second car.”

Doug DeYoung, director of government relations at the Traverse Area Chamber of Commerce, which is also sponsoring the Traverse City forum, is a bit more cautious. He wants to make sure local officials get a close look at a state rail plan before clamoring for investment dollars.

“We need to look at who could use rail, who would use it, and where would be the best location for rail as a multimodal transportation solution in our region before we can say what the economic impacts will be,” Mr. DeYoung said.

MDOT’s Steudle is equally cautious about a north-south rail connection. While the good news is that there are freight rail lines connecting Ann Arbor to Traverse City, making passenger rail at least a possibility, those tracks are very bumpy, slow, and in need of lots of work.

“I’d love to get on a train and go Up North, if it took four hours,” Mr. Steudle said. “But, right now, it takes nine. It’s going to take a lot of money in physical infrastructure improvements.”

That means people who want to ride the rails to, from, and around northern Michigan must speak out.

“We need the grassroots to stand up,” said Mr. Steudle, “to say we want this and we’re willing to pay for it.”

Hannah Clark is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s policy associate for transportation. Reach her at Hannah@mlui.org.

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