Amtrak, officials want new station

From the Port Huron Times-Herald:

When it comes to Michigan train stations, Port Huron is a caboose.

Record ridership for the Blue Water line this year has pushed the small, dated facility’s capacity to the brink — and both Amtrak and Michigan Department of Transportation officials have noticed.

Local authorities want to move the station from its current site at 2223 16th St. in Port Huron to a spot easier for tourist traffic from Interstate 94/69 and from the Blue Water Bridge to find.

With a tight municipal budget because of a hefty sewer separation project debt, Port Huron can’t shoulder the project cost alone.

However, both the feds and the state have their eyes trained on Detroit: The national Amtrak route connecting the Motor City to Chicago is slated to receive multimillion-dollar upgrades for high-speed rail this year.

The grant-funded projects mean little to the Blue Water route and Port Huron — neither will receive major funding until the Wolverine line project is complete.

For the time being, no matter the resolve of the local officials, it seems the “Am-shack” is here to stay.

Riding the rails

For locals, the train isn’t about tourism. It strings their lives together.

Mike Provost, 27, of Fostoria, said he’s been riding the train from Port Huron to Lapeer — a 45-minute journey — about once a month for the past year to see his girlfriend. Provost plugged his headphones in to his laptop and listened to music on his ride Thursday morning, gazing at an ultrasound image on his computer screen of his 9-week-old child.

A roundtrip ticket costs Provost $8, making it more affordable for him than paying for several tanks of gas.

Though some are critical of the Port Huron train station, Provost said it serves the only purpose he needs: A warm place to sit for a few minutes between paying for his seat and waiting to board the train.

Provost wouldn’t commend the station for its aesthetics, though “it smells like prison,” he said.

Jess Dobson, 18, of Port Huron, rides the Blue Water line to and from East Lansing, where she attends Michigan State University. Her round-trip ticket is about $9.50.

“I like that (the train) is here, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get home,” she said.

Familiar with the public bus system in East Lansing, Dobson said returning home is a shock.

“Once you experience functional public transit, you don’t want to go back to dysfunctional,” Dobson said.

Growing up in Port Huron, Dobson said she didn’t know an Amtrak station existed in the city — until a friend told her about it when she headed to MSU to study food service management.

Chris Perry, 53, of Port Huron, took his first trip on the Blue Water line Thursday morning as he headed to Kalamazoo for a visit — though he said he’s lived blocks away from the station for years.

Perry said he had no qualms about waiting in the station for the train — it was warm and enclosed from the elements.

All aboard

Thursday morning, nine passengers sat inside the quiet station, waiting for the 5:45 a.m. call to board the train. About 20 chairs line the walls of the square room.

A number of people waited in their vehicles rather than enter the station.

Though the building serves a functional purpose, Bruce Brown, Port Huron’s city manager, is critical of its industrial surroundings and its unappealing construction.

The current station is an Amtrak-owned facility and has “lived out its life expectancy,” said Therese Cody, passenger rail programs manager for MDOT.

Built in 1979, the “Am-shack” is a modular design Amtrak once considered using as a prototype for small staffed stations — but never replicated.

The Blue Water route used to operate as the “International,” running from Chicago to Toronto via the tunnel underneath the St. Clair River until April 25, 2004. The change was initiated for homeland security concerns after Sept. 11, 2001.

Brown said Canadian tourists now drive across the Blue Water Bridge, park their cars in Port Huron and hop on the train to Chicago — a trend he wants to see increase.

Canadian visitors have difficulty finding the station and being comfortable there, Brown said. Many international travelers purchase their tickets online, park at the Thomas Edison Inn and take a taxi to the train station, Brown said.

There often aren’t enough parking spaces to accommodate passengers at peak times.

“We’re having an overflow problem at Port Huron,” MDOT spokeswoman Janet Foran said.

Foran attributed parking problems to the influx of Canadian visitors.

“The current station has turned out to be undersized, especially parking,” said Marc Magliari, media relations manager for Amtrak.

A proposal

Brown doesn’t think the city is doing enough to market itself to Canadian travelers en route to Chicago.

He met with a slew of officials from MDOT, Amtrak, Canadian National and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers Inc. in late 2011.

The city’s commitment to developments at the Thomas Edison Inn property inspired Brown to pursue having the train station follow suit.

Brown said the Amtrak train could use the same rails Canadian National uses for freight deliveries to the Dunn Paper Plant on the St. Clair River north of the Blue Water Bridge.

The station could be built at the current Thomas Edison Depot Museum or south of the Thomas Edison Inn, Brown said.

Plans for a new station could meet snags if the Thomas Edison Depot Museum is chosen as a site, said Susan Bennett, executive director of the Port Huron Museum.

The depot was built in the 1850s and was a former station on the Grand Trunk Railroad which serviced Detroit from Fort Gratiot. It is a national historic landmark — a designation gained through a hefty price tag and years of persistence, Bennett said.

The city manager’s other option is to upgrade the 16th Street train station. The parking lot would be expanded as well.

Adding a shuttle service from the station to the Thomas Edison Inn and adjacent future convention center would encourage visitors to ride the train, Brown said.

Blue Water Area Transit buses do not serve the existing station.

To train passengers such as Provost and Perry, the idea of a new station seems odd.

“I don’t see enough traffic there,” Perry said of the 16th Street station.

Should the station move, Provost said he’s concerned about the logistics.

“I don’t know where you’d put the parking,” Provost said of placing the station near the Thomas Edison Inn waterfront property.

Provost said he’s seen traffic jams in the current parking lot when passengers try to leave in their cars after getting off the train.

Empty pockets?

Amtrak last made upgrades to the station in late fall 2011 –paving the once-gravel parking lot and adding lights — in order to make the facility compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, Magliari said.

Though Amtrak is stressing the need for a new station, it isn’t going to foot the whole bill.

Amtrak owns the existing station in Port Huron, and the Canadian National Railway owns the tracks.

“It’s uncommon for (Amtrak) to own stations,” Magliari said.

According to data from The Great American Train Stations, Amtrak owns 19% of the train stations and their accompanying parking lots in Michigan. About 43% of Michigan cities with train stations own the facilities.

“Generally speaking, we supply the train service, and the community supplies the station,” Magliari said.

MDOT — which pays for the general maintenance to the Blue Water route — views building a new station as a collaboration among MDOT, Amtrak, CN and Port Huron.

“We’ll all look at the price tag, and see who has what,” Foran said.

Brown envisions using money from the Blue Water Bridge Plaza project mitigation funds from MDOT to make the station more inviting and “fun,” Brown said.

Half of the city’s annual mitigation money — about $50,000 — was designated by city council in December to help pay the county’s bonds for the proposed convention center.

New money, little help

Michigan is to receive millions of dollars in federal funding to update its 20-year-old passenger train cars, engines and upgrade its rails.

The state is in line for a $268 million Midwest Next Generation Train Equipment procurement grant, in conjunction with Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. The grant will buy new engines and coaches for the Blue Water and Wolverine routes in eastern Michigan, and new coaches for the Pere Marquette line on the west side — expected to be on the rails by 2014, Cody said.

Federal funding announced in fall 2011 for upgrades to a portion of the Wolverine route to make it “high speed” translate into few benefits to Blue Water route riders.

MDOT will use a $150 million grant to buy a 135-mile stretch of track between Dearborn and Kalamazoo from Norfolk Southern, Foran said.

A separate $196.5 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant will be used to upgrade the purchased section of track’s infrastructure to make it safer for trains to travel through Michigan at higher speeds.

The Blue Water line converges with the Wolverine line in Battle Creek, and will benefit from improvements to the shared portion of the line to Chicago, Cody said.

The current average train speed across Michigan is 79 mph and maximum speed is 95 mph, Cody said. Track upgrades will allow for trains to max out at 110 mph on 77% of the Wolverine line.

The Wolverine line has three times the passenger train traffic of the Blue Water route — six trains per day compared to two, but its ridership has grown at a slower rate.

From 2009 to 2011, station activity between Detroit and Chicago increased 13.3%. During the same time period, activity increased by 40.8% between Port Huron and Chicago, according to MDOT data.

Port Huron is placing a strong emphasis on drawing tourists to the area, seen through council-supported projects such as the convention center, Blue Water Area Transit bus transfer facility and I-69 corridor corporation.

The city will have to decide if the new station is warranted — and if federal dollars can be attracted to help foot the bill.