Commentary: All Aboard! TC Rail Service Needs Support Now

Imagine packing a bag for the weekend, heading over to the Filling Station (at the historic Train Depot) in Traverse City for lunch – and then actually boarding a train. As you settle into your clean, comfortable seat, the train pulls south along Boardman Lake toward Kingsley. You open your laptop to catch up on work, looking up from time to time to enjoy the passing forests, farms, and mid-Michigan towns such as Cadillac, Mt. Pleasant, Owosso and Howell. As the train pulls into Brighton, you text a friend who’s picking you up in Ann Arbor: Train on time, see you outside station, looking forward to wknd!

It’s quite a vision – modern passenger rail service connecting Traverse City to Ann Arbor. It would strengthen our regional economy and stimulate development along the route. It would take cars off the highways, with the environmental benefits of cleaner air and less fuel consumption. It would use an existing asset – railroad tracks – to offer a new transportation option for those of us who live in the Traverse City area and an appealing new way for visitors to come to our area.

But what’s most exciting? It can be a reality.

There’s real momentum in Michigan to expand rail. Major improvements to the tracks from Detroit to Chicago have trains moving 100 mph on some stretches. Plans are under way to reach that speed for 77 percent of the trip, cutting two hours off the travel time.

In the heart of Detroit, a new 3.3-mile rail line along Woodward Avenue is under construction. The business leaders of the Motor City looked at what was needed to stimulate economic activity downtown and identified a rail line as the best catalyst. Usually it’s government funding that drives rail projects, but in this case, business leaders and foundations largely funded the $180 million project. The service is set to open in 2016.

There is also significant progress to establish commuter rail service between Ann Arbor, Brighton and Howell. The project would alleviate traffic on congested US-23 and connect workers in Livingston County to jobs in Ann Arbor. It’s in the planning stages now, but those involved think the service could begin in 2017.

Those tracks between Ann Arbor and Howell are part of the same intact, state-owned rail line that comes to Traverse City, as well as to Kalkaska and Petoskey. The Owosso-based Great Lakes Central Railroad leases the rights to use the tracks and it operates an active freight business that includes hauling plastic pellets from Petoskey and sand from Wexford County. The tracks are in good shape, too; 65 per cent are rated to allow passengers to travel at 59 m.p.h.

Great Lakes Central is actively participating in the Ann Arbor to Howell project and they’ve made it clear they support connecting Ann Arbor to Traverse City. The Michigan Department of Transportation is also on board. When MDOT was seeking public input for the State Rail Plan in 2011, more people identified Traverse City as needing rail service than any other place in Michigan. That kind of public support helped MDOT officially register the A2 to TC line as a priority. It’s expected that MDOT will launch a full study of the corridor next year to evaluate the feasibility and costs of getting the tracks into full operational condition for passenger rail.

Many steps lie ahead before regular service takes shape, and at this early stage, public support matters. It’s crucial that people get involved in this project, and this is an incredible opportunity for communities along the corridor to work together to support a project that benefits all of Michigan!

At the Michigan Land Use Institute, we’re committed to doing everything we can to help. We’re hosting a public informational event at the State Theatre on Feb. 16 to provide information and give people ways to get involved. You can learn more at www.mlui.org.

Hans Voss is the executive director of the Traverse City-based the Michigan Land Use Institute and an enthusiastic supporter of reviving rail service to northern Michigan. To learn how to get involved with this groundbreaking opportunity, contact him at hans@mlui.org.

 

 

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