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Traverse City nonprofit is the engine pulling for passenger rail service from Ann Arbor

From Crain’s Detroit Business:

Photo by NATHAN SKID, CBD (left) / ISTOCK PHOTO (right) With that spring ritual — the weekend slog up and down I-75 — about to rev up, you'd be excused for thinking there has to be a better way to get up north. Could that way be a railway?
Photo by NATHAN SKID, CBD (left) / ISTOCK PHOTO (right) With that spring ritual — the weekend slog up and down I-75 — about to rev up, you’d be excused for thinking there has to be a better way to get up north. Could that way be a railway?

It’s an idea with appeal: Riding the rails north from Ann Arbor to Traverse City, maybe for a summer weekend — and no highway congestion to contend with, there or back.

The Michigan Land Use Institute hopes to make that a reality.

The Traverse City-based nonprofit is spearheading a campaign to explore passenger rail service on an approximately 240-mile stretch of track between the two cities — an “A2TC” initiative that’s generated interest and discussion as well as about $18,700 raised in a Land Use Institute crowdfunding campaign in March.

“There’s a lot of work to be done and questions to be answered, and our goal is just to keep moving this forward to get the questions answered,” said Jim Bruckbauer, a policy specialist at the Land Use Institute.

It’s a 10-year vision to provide a new and more environmentally friendly option to travel the state and boost the downtown economies of communities along the route, while speaking to public sentiment for passenger rail connecting Traverse City and Southeast Michigan.

At statewide community forums in 2010 while the Michigan Department of Transportation was developing a state rail plan, a consistent and top theme that emerged was that Michigan’s passenger rail system should include a Traverse City-to-southern Michigan connection, said Liz Treutel, a policy associate at the Michigan Environmental Council — which, with the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, convened the meetings.

Feedback ran both ways, Treutel said. People in northern Michigan wanted easier access to downstate, and tourists were interested in rail service heading north.

Conducting a feasibility study for a new route to Traverse City, among other destinations, became a recommendation of the 2011 state rail plan.

“If it’s done, we would want to do it in partnership with others that are looking at it,” like the Land Use Institute, said Tim Hoeffner, director of MDOT’s Office of Rail.

The Land Use Institute has been discussing A2TC with MDOT and other organizations and potential stakeholders and is looking at how a feasibility study could proceed next year to answer many unknowns — such as potential ridership, cost of track improvements, operating costs and structure, and travel time between communities.

railmapTrack is ready … almost
The track, predominantly state-owned and used for freight, is operated by the Great Lakes Central Railroad. About 95 percent of the tracks are in condition for passenger service. Small sections, like one outside Traverse City, only meet Federal Railroad Administration standards for freight use and would need to be improved.

In addition, controls that would allow freight operations and passenger trains to run at the same time would be federally required, said Chris Bagwell, Great Lakes Central’s executive vice president and general manager.

He did not have a cost estimate but said installing what are known as positive train controls would involve “a full GPS system of the railroad” and improving locomotives and grade crossings so that if two trains are approaching each other, they would be able to communicate and brake.

The railroad is working with the Land Use Institute and providing information, Bagwell said. With MDOT and the institute, Great Lakes Central could run a test ride from Ann Arbor to Traverse City next summer, assessing the track and the time it would take.

MDOT’s Hoeffner said additional questions include how much people would pay for tickets. “Most passenger service does not cover the operating cost from what the passengers pay,” he said, “so where would the operating subsidy come from?

“That said, it’s an interesting idea, and it is the type of thing that we work with the local communities on. If they have a vision or a concept, then we’re here to work with them on it.”

The Michigan Environmental Council is project manager on a $100,000 study examining another passenger rail route — connecting Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Holland. The council has been discussing A2TC with the Land Use Institute and hopes to be involved, perhaps contributing staff time or knowledge from the “Coast to Coast” study, Treutel said.

Also offering to share information is the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, which is conducting a feasibility study on a host of brick-and-mortar issues associated with a nearly 27-mile proposed commuter service connecting Howell and Ann Arbor, said Michael Benham, a strategic planner for the authority. That stretch of track is part of the line that goes north to Traverse City.

The A2TC route envisions several community stops between Ann Arbor and Traverse City and a possible jog up to Petoskey.

One stop could be Mount Pleasant. That city’s community services and economic development director, William Mrdeza, sees many possible benefits, including a new way for students to commute to Central Michigan University, an asset to downtown development and a selling point to attract residents and tourism.

“And obviously all of that brings in some economic impact to the community as well,” Mrdeza said. “I think we’re really interested in seeing where this might go and if we can be a part of determining the feasibility.”

With some of its crowdfunding money, the Land Use Institute expects this summer to create videos showing the impact the service might have on communities.

An economic engine?
In Traverse City, community transportation advocate Kimberly Pontius, executive vice president of the Traverse Area Association of Realtors, said A2TC service could help attract clients such as second-home buyers and cater to executives who opt to live in the Traverse region and commute to Southeast Michigan. The rail line could benefit economies on both ends of the route, he said.

That includes a boost to tourism. Southeast Michigan is the Traverse City area’s biggest market, other than the state as a whole. Connecting Southeast Michigan populations to northern destinations via rail is worth looking at, said Brad Van Dommelen, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism.

Train travel, Van Dommelen said, “is so much more leisurely and enjoyable … instead of a grind on the highways” and would add to the experience of coming north.

“Normally, your enjoyment of the weekend doesn’t begin until you get to your destination,” Van Dommelen said. “Traveling by train, your experience, your enjoyment begins the moment you step on the train. It becomes part of the adventure.”

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Algoma Central Railway passenger service transition is a work in progress

From the Sault Star:

The ACR passenger train rolls into Sault Ste. Marie from Hearst March 31, 2015 at the CN Rail yard in the city's west end. Jeffrey Ougler/Sault Star
The ACR passenger train rolls into Sault Ste. Marie from Hearst March 31, 2015 at the CN Rail yard in the city’s west end. Jeffrey Ougler/Sault Star

The third-party operator selected to run the ACR passenger train service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst is working through the conditions required to formally seal the deal.

Economic Development Corp. CEO Tom Dodds said Railmark’s owner B. Allen Brown is working through conditions needed to ink the final agreement that will see the short-line railway company take over operations.

“There are regular conversations between CN and Railmark and really, we’re at that point that all but one of the pre- conditions have been checked off,” Dodds said.

Dodds said the “couple” of outstanding items not yet covered off are resolvable but it becomes a question of time.

Railmark “really has progressed remarkably but we’re all in the same position, we all want it done yesterday.”

Both federal and provincial operating licenses have been obtained, as well as insurance.

Dodds called the transition process a little more complicated and longer than expected, but that is partly due to the eleventh hour of the funding approval announcement and the number of things that needed to be done, all in a short period of time.

The final transition to Railmark won’t happen until all the conditions are met, he said. In the meantime, CN continues to operate the service.

“Council provided Railmark an approval in principal but they need to see the final agreement and that arrangement needs to give them a level of comfort with how all of this unfolds and demonstrates to them that they’re not on the hook,” Dodds said.

Under the federal government’s funding plan, the City of Sault Ste. Marie is the recipient of the funding and it in turn needs to create a mirror agreement with Railmark.

The agreement stipulates maximum amounts of funding per month, what expenses are eligible for funding and what documentation or receipts must be presented for reimbursement, among other things.

Dodds said a monitoring committee will oversee the expenditures to ensure they meet the criteria for quick submission and reimbursement.

He said it’s also important that there is a high degree of understanding between the city and Railmark on how the process will work and how funds will move back and forth.

“We are attempting to minimize the amount of time anyone will be out of pocket and we want to make sure that the expenses are well documented and covered off as part of the agreement to demonstrate payment,” he said.

Dodds said scheduling changes cannot occur until the agreement is signed and the stakeholders have a chance to examine the relative volumes of traffic and see what makes sense.

“The government is funding a passenger service. Transport Canada is willing to be flexible but up to a point. They want to ensure that the service they are funding is being provided,” he said.

Railmark will need to determine how to grow revenue through its other services and cut the costs associated with the passenger train service.

Ultimately, it will be up to council to determine whether the agreement meets its standards and whether it is willing to take a limited risk and serve as a go-between for the funding transfer.

Dodds said other community tourism groups needs to work with Brown to ensure the passenger train service is maintained.

It’s expected that a working group meeting will be held shortly so that the stakeholders are all aware of the circumstances.

In April, it was announced that Transport Canada will provide $5.3 million of funding over three years for the continued operation of the passenger rail service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.

The announcement marked a year-long drive by stakeholders to develop a plan that would see the service eventually become self sufficient.

Source: http://www.saultstar.com/2015/05/13/passenger-service-transition-a-work-in-progress

May 2015 edition of OnTrack

Click here to save this file or to view it as a PDF in full screen.

Included in this issue:

  • information to help you make an informed decision on Proposition 1 on the May 5th ballot
  • notes on the recent meeting held in the Ypsilanti Freighthouse
  • how you can help with the “Detroit-Holland Rail Ridership and Cost Estimate Study” that has recently gotten underway
  • Amtrak Train Days official kick-off at Chicago Union Station
  • Amtrak Train Days events in Michigan

 

We hope you enjoy the issue and that you will let us hear your comments and suggestions. If you would like to write a story or suggest an item to be covered, email us at marprail@yahoo.com

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Come to Durand May 16, 2015 for a MARP meeting and Railroad Days

The Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP) will be having its monthly membership meeting at Durand Union Station 200 Railroad Street, Durand MI, 48439, on Saturday, May 16, 2015. The meeting will start at 10 a.m. in the second floor Ballroom at the station.

Following a membership meeting, MARP and DUSI will be co-sponsoring a Durand Railroad Days Program presented by Joseph M. Mishler on the “Flint and Holly Railroad, its economic impact on the area and the man that built it, Henry Howland Crapo”.

The MARP meeting and the program that will follow the meeting are open to all interested persons. Membership in MARP or DUSI is not required, however membership forms will be available for anyone that would like to join and support either or both of these organizations.

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