Passenger train from Detroit to Petoskey could be prioritized under new majority

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Plans for a high-speed rail network connecting regions of Michigan are chugging along.

The Traverse City-based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities is studying the possibility of connecting the southeast and northwest Lower Peninsula, said Carolyn Ulstad, the transportation program manager for the nonprofit that focuses on climate issues, food insecurity and transportation. That would connect Detroit and Ann Arbor to Traverse City and Petoskey.

While studies can often be seen as a deliberative measure to avoid taking tangible action, Ulstad said it is an important step to making the long talked-about proposal a reality.

That’s because the Federal Railroad Administration requires certain studies be completed before transitioning a line to be used for passenger transportation.

“If you ever want to have an established passenger service, there has to be certain studies and documentation that go to the FRA to get a stamp of approval,” Ulstad said. “This is one of those steps.”

The study that the group is currently working on is known as a service development plan, which is a requirement to get approval for passenger service.

The state-owned line is currently being used only for freight, Ulstad said.

“You wouldn’t have to build any more rail line,” Ulstad said. “The only thing you’d probably have to do is update certain sections – like repaving a road, the road is there, you just need to make some improvements to it.” 

Passenger rail on the route would allow a greater use of a public investment, Ulstad said. 

“We see this as a way to utilize a state-owned asset with state funds going into it from time to time for updates and repairs more efficiently,” Ulstad said. “Most of the time, there’s a perfectly good asset just sitting there and not getting used day to day.”

The line had been used for passenger rail decades ago, Ulstad said. 

“At one point it was, and then I think with the highway system going in, there was a national push for highway systems and we started to see rail service around the country be deprioritized,” Ulstad said. 

Michael Frezell, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the department is supportive of initiatives like the one being studied by Groundwork. 

Advocates say it’s needed fast to help retain and attract workers. The state’s lack of public transit discourages young people from moving to Michigan, said Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck.

Taking a six-mile trip from Hamtramck City Hall to the Fox Theatre in Detroit takes four times as long via current public transit systems than it would if you drove, Aiyash said.

“In a city with the highest (auto) insurance rates statewide and tough parking, how is this attractive to anyone?” Aiyash asked. 

The lack of public transportation, like a high-speed rail network, is also a problem for the travel industry – both as an impediment for travelers themselves, but also for businesses hoping to attract workers, said David Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan. 

Some people who want to work can’t afford to because their entire family owns just one car, Lorenz said. “The challenge we have as a society is that we have all these things compounding on each other.” 

Michigan’s transportation infrastructure has traditionally been built around cars. The state put the nation on wheels. 

But individual forms of transportation are not as accessible as public transit, Aiyash said.

“Four out of 10 Michiganders live in poverty, and it’s even higher in Detroit,” Aiyash said. “A car may be a necessity to get around, but it’s a luxury to actually have.”

The Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers is focused on improving existing rail service. 

Members want Amtrak to increase the frequency of trains on its three Michigan routes, said Ulstad, who also serves as vice chair for the association. 

One line running from Grand Rapids to Chicago has just one train a day. 

“It really serves the Chicago traveler if you want to spend the whole day in Chicago, but there’s really not a good option for someone from Chicago who wants to spend their day in Michigan,” Ulstad said. 

The state transportation department has focused on upgrading the Amtrak line running from Detroit to Chicago, enabling sections of it to reach speeds of 110 miles per hour – something that former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, was supportive of – and introducing a fleet of new train cars, Frezell said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has allocated $160 million in her budget proposal for grants that would be used to invest in local transportation infrastructure, including rail. An additional $62.3 million – including $43.6 million of federal funds – would be used for rail and transit projects that “protect and enhance Michigan’s multi-modal transportation network.”

The association also wants a dedicated Amtrak route running from Kalamazoo to Detroit, Ulstad said. That would allow travelers enough time to start their day in Kalamazoo, do business in Detroit, and make it back home the same day.

Proposals to expand the state’s passenger rail network have previously not gained enough momentum to become reality, but Democratic leaders say they are optimistic about the prospects now that they are in the majority for the first time in 40 years. 

Asked whether proposals for an expanded network would be likely to gain traction among the new Democratic majority in the Michigan Senate, Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, the majority whip, responded with an enthusiastic, “Hell yeah!”

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