GROUNDBREAKING :: Trains Arriving Soon To A Town Near You (#MIOdyssey13)

Michigan’s new focus on trains can be described as of one of the greatest rail revivals in the country. The Michigan Department of Transportation recently completed its’ State Rail Plan, a federally required inventory and vision for the state’s rail system.  The feds have invested more than  $600 million acquiring and upgrading the Detroit-to-Chicago line and buying new train cars.  Eight of 22 Amtrak stations have been built or reconstructed since 2008.  Three more are underway.

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A train leaving the East Lansing train station.

This all comes as Michigan’s rail lines boast record ridership.  Interest in passenger rail in Michigan is higher than it’s been in 80 years.

Right now, though, most families who aren’t in urban regions are cut off from public transportation. And Michigan’s visitors—3.8 million last year alone—can hardly reach destinations north of Lansing unless they have a plane ticket and cab fare, or a car with plenty of gas. Trains no longer connect, as they once did, thousands of travelers to Michigan’s most popular destinations like Traverse City, Petoskey and Mackinac Island

But that may change. State and local leaders are exploring ways to connect the Chicago-Detroit line with places like Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and even Traverse City, so that visitors and commuters can have a viable rail connection between Michigan’s rural and metro areas.

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A train leaving the Detroit area.

In fact, last month, community leaders in Ypsilanti unveiled a set of state-owned train cars that are expected to be part of a commuter rail line  connecting Detroit to Ann Arbor. The line would travel between Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, the Metro Airport, Dearborn, and Detroit. It would be Michigan’s first commuter line since the state pulled funding in 1984 for Amtrak’s Michigan Executive which ran between Jackson and Detroit. Transportation officials are working toward upgrading the tracks so that trains can run smoothly, and they’re still securing funding for operating costs.

This Washtenaw County-Livingston Line or “WALLY,”  enjoys strong local government, business, and citizen support in Washtenaw County. It would provide relief for travelers on congested US-23 north of Ann Arbor.  More support is needed in Livingston County at all levels.  The project received a significant shot in the arm recently with the announcement of a $700,000 federal transportation grant to carry out an exhaustive engineering and operating study.

And speaking of studies, Transportation for Michigan, through our Michigan By Rail campaign, is working on securing funds for a feasibility study exploring passenger travel between Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids.  Before it was discontinued in the early 1970’s the Pere Marquette service offered three daily round trips along this route.  We think there is sufficient interest to bring these trains back.

Someday soon trains could be chugging along to northern Michigan, connecting Michigan families to large metropolitan areas like Detroit and Chicago and bringing millions of visitors to experience the rich beauty of northwest Lower Michigan.

While train travel Up North may still be many years away, a new freight study by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is breathing new life into the old idea. Right now MDOT is investigating how much economic development rail could spur in towns Up North, and figuring out which industries could benefit from having a rail connection. The economic boost from freight rail will accelerate the development of passenger service Up North.

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Tom Carper presenting at the MI Rail Conference in August.

As Amtrak board member Tom Carper said recently at the MI Rail Conference in Lansing, “Michigan is doing great things with rail.”  We’re off to a good start; we must keep the momentum and reestablish passenger train service between Traverse City and Ann Arbor and between Detroit and Grand Rapids.  We must also complete the plans and move commuter rail projects connecting Ann Arbor to Detroit and Livingston County off the drawing boards and into service.

In this way, we will link our state together. Our businesses, commuters, communities and neighborhoods will be better for it.

Written by: James Bruckbauer (@jimbruckb), Michigan Land Use Institute (Trans4M Core Member) & Tim Fischer (@TimothyRFischer), Michigan Environmental Council (Trans4M Core Member)

All photos courtesy of Tim Fischer. 

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