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Rail is Energizing Cities Coast to Coast

Michigan needs to catch the train

April 1, 2001 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

America is a nation on the move. Call it progress, call it freedom, or call it frenzy: People are going places in record numbers. But they're going nowhere fast. Traffic expands twice as quickly as the population because sprawl forces families to practically live on four wheels. Passengers pack the major airports, with the number of ticket holders expected to soar almost 60 percent by 2010 to one billion a year.

Cities are breaking through the gridlock, however, by investing in a proven technology: Passenger rail service. Not the belching steam engines of yesteryear, but whisper-quiet electric trains that weave through downtowns and sleek high-speed commuter trains that whisk between cities.

From the Sunbelt to the Snowbelt, cities are lining up to share in new federal funding for urban rail systems. Since 1992 more than 30 metropolitan areas, such as Dallas, Denver, Memphis, and Minneapolis have built or planned passenger rail lines. Many have designed train systems as transit backbones, with buses fanning out like ribs. Rail ridership has quickly outpaced projections in many places. Commercial and residential development also is booming along rail corridors as private money follows the public investment and the crowds.

Absent from this rail renaissance, however, is Detroit —the nation's largest metropolitan area without urban passenger rail. Detroit is also the ninth-most congested city in the country. Its idleness, while other cities speed ahead, raises two key questions: Why is Michigan missing the train, and how can the state's largest cities get on track?

The answers are critical for Detroit, as well as Grand Rapids, which compete globally with other metropolitan areas for jobs, visitors, and corporate investment. More than industrial strength, the economic future of Michigan's major cities increasingly depends on how attractive they are to businesses and to people who want affordable, convenient places to live, work, and play.

To learn how Michigan might catch up and seize the mobility and development potential of rail, the Michigan Land Use Institute interviewed decision makers in other states about their successful campaigns for light rail — electric streetcar lines within cities — and commuter rail, which connects cities and suburbs. We then asked leaders in Michigan: What are the barriers to rail here? How do we overcome them? Who might lead the charge?

The answers point to three main “stops” on Michigan’s way out of stifling congestion and on to the time-saving and money-making opportunities that rail delivers. Rail can figure in Michigan’s future once 1) cities start planning for it 2) leaders start selling it and 3) taxpayers respond to its promise of lower transportation costs and new development.

The route to world-class public transit in Michigan covers some difficult ground, such as strong political and economic interests in highway construction and the divide between city and suburban residents. But across the nation, communities have found that efficient, reliable passenger rail service can solve many problems — from congestion to urban decay — at once. It’s time for Michigan to focus on its future and how it wants to get there.

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