$161M On The Line: Will Michigan See High-Speed Rail?

From Michigan Now/Interlochen Public Radio

A month ago, Michigan’s congressmen and senators were hailing the federal government, which would be sending $161 million dollars for high speed rail. Track improvements might mean a trip from Detroit to Chicago in just three hours.

But a struggling state government would have to find a way to match those federal dollars, if Michigan is to see any actual money. Last week the state legislature quit for 2010 without allotting the matching funds.

Transit advocates are disappointed. While there’s still a chance at the money, they say this could be a big setback.

 Legislators stayed up all night last week Thursday. It was their last chance to vote. Almost two-thirds of them are term limited out, including the leader of the state Senate, Republican Mike Bishop from Rochester Hills.

“As a republican I’ve stuck my neck out on the transit issue,” Bishop says.

The Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation stuck his neck out too. Kirk Steudle’s team spent six months figuring out the engineering and the financing for high speed rail.

“It’s my job as a transportation professional of 25 years in this field to say, ‘Here’s what’s happening and here’s how we can make this work better,'” he says. “But at the end of the day it’s still governed by legislative action.”

Steudle planned for the state to sell $45 million dollars in bonds. Meanwhile, the federal government has been holding that $161 million dollars, waiting to see the state match. It’s a four-to-one dollar value, which a chance at hundreds-of-millions more in a possible bonus later on.

The state house approved MDOT’s plan a month ago, and things were looking good. Bishop had said he would also let his chamber vote on the issue. But that didn’t happen.

In the end, Bishop says: “I don’t ask the state taxpayers to finance anything unless a business plan is presented that gives us some indication that it brings value.”

Michigan lawmakers are not the only ones to raise questions about the value of the federal rail monies. Ohio and Wisconsin were supposed to get $1.2 billion dollars for high speed rail, but their new tea party-elect governors say they want the money for roads.

The Obama Administration says this money is for rail only.  So it will give the money to someone else.

The plan was to finance the state match with bonds.

“Who pays for the bonds?” Senator Roger Kahn asks. The answer is: taxpayers.

“The legislature failing to act is really putting us at a competitive disadvantage to the other states. It’s saying we’re stuck in the past,” says Cece Grant. The native Detroiter spent two years in Washington D.C. with Transportation for America. In July, she came home to be their Michigan organizer. Grant wishes transit were more than eight percent of the MDOT budget.

“There’s no way for your employees to get back and forth to work,” she says. “We’re not a mobile society. We don’t have bustling thriving downtowns.”

Railway advocates like Cece Grant are pessimistic about the new legislature, and cautiously optimistic about the new governor. Michigan will go the way of Ohio and Wisconsin, losing the federal rail money, if the new governor and lawmakers don’t act quickly in 2011.

Listen to this story at: http://ipr.interlochen.org/ipr-news-features/episode/11256