Guest column: Michigan lawmakers must act to secure $161 million for fast passenger rail service

From The Grand Rapids Press

Grand Rapids is on the verge of a passenger rail renaissance that promises to accelerate economic development, boost tourism, help the environment and better connect Grand Rapidians with the rest of the state and the nation.

In order to make that happen, state senators must approve legislation securing $161 million in federal rail funds to start building the fast passenger rail service we’ve talked about for so long.

Legislation currently before the state Senate — HB 6484 — would fund Michigan’s required state match for the federal high speed rail funding. If the state Senate fails to pass this bill Michigan will allow $161 million to slip away. That would hinder the possibility of high speed connections on the Chicago-Detroit corridor and miss the opportunity to strengthen passenger rail travel to Grand Rapids.

We must urge our state senators to pass this bill.

With the federal funding, Michigan will purchase and upgrade 135 miles of track between Dearborn and Kalamazoo. Plans also include three new or improved train stations along the way.

Successful funding and completion of these projects means trains hitting 110 mph on more than 200 miles of track along southern Michigan’s corridor. This is a game-changing opportunity for our state. Republicans and Democrats, labor, local governments, chambers of commerce, and environmental groups are now on the same page.

Meanwhile, Grand Rapids is doing its part.

In early November, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) approved $850,000 for a new Amtrak station, which will help secure a $3.8 million federal grant. The new facility will transform the Amtrak service from Chicago into a more efficient system by alleviating congestion and speeding arrival into the station.

The DDA’s contribution is one way of showing commitment required by the Federal Rail Administration to be considered for federal funding. The state, as well, must also show political and financial support for existing passenger rail systems. That’s why it is so crucial that the state Senate approve this bill before the end of the year.

Demonstrating such enthusiasm also may help Michigan get funds that other states are turning down.

The newly elected governors of Wisconsin and Ohio are rejecting almost $1.3 billion in federal high speed rail grants. Those funds will be redistributed “in a professional way in places where the money can be well spent,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

There’s no reason that place can’t be Michigan. And no reason the State Senate shouldn’t enthusiastically say, “Yes” to Michigan and pass HB 6484.

Rick Chapla is vice president of business development at the Right Place, Inc. in Grand Rapids.