Amtrak’s Grand Rapids to Chicago route could get in on high-speed rail with proposed upgrades

From The Grand Rapids Press/

Upgrades to Amtrak’s Pere Marquette line between Grand Rapids and Chicago could be in the works thanks to a collaborative effort to net millions in highly competitive federal funding.

Amtrak is working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to drum up local support for the project, starting with an application by the harbor town of New Buffalo near the Indiana border for a slice of nearly $500 million in federal TIGER grants.

This will be the fourth year the U.S. Department of Transportation awards the grants, which are highly competitive and go toward transportation and similar projects.

New Buffalo was taken off the Pere Marquette line in 2009, but assistant city manager Ryan Fellows said the city is applying for grants in the hopes of being linked to Amtrak’s planned 110-mph train route between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind.

The TIGER grant would allow Amtrak to add New Buffalo back to the Pere Marquette line, which in turn would give cities along that route, including Grand Rapids and Holland, access to high-speed rail.

“It’d increase our level of service,” Fellows said, adding the proposals would have implications for travel to the east side of the state as well.

The possibility of putting New Buffalo back on the Pere Marquette line drew interest from the Grand Valley Metro Council in Grand Rapids, which last week passed a resolution supporting New Buffalo’s efforts.

Metro Council Executive Director John Weiss said the council was approached by MDOT’s new rail director, Timothy Hoeffner, to collaborate on the plans.

Part of the TIGER grant also would be used by Amtrak to “double track” its lines near Bangor, another city along the Pere Marquette line, Weiss said.

Doubling tracking would separate passenger and freight rail lines, which could lend itself to increased train frequency to and from Chicago to Grand Rapids, he said.

“It’s just an intergovernmental cooperation where this could benefit our riders and it could benefit passenger trains,” Weiss said.

“What we like about it too is it could increase passenger trains coming from the south,” he added. “It’s for tourists going up north. Anything we can do to make it easier for our residents to go to other places or have tourists come to us, that’d be great.”

Hoeffner said such plans likely are years off, adding Amtrak has been exploring ways to better its service in West and Southwest Michigan for some years.

MDOT recently released a long-term plan for rail operations in the state, and although this particular project is not spelled out in that report, Hoeffner said it goes along with where the department hopes to head in coming years.

“It provides more flexibility for Amtrak’s operations today and also provides additional capacity for increased frequencies in the future,” Hoeffner said. “So it really helps with reliability and also travel times.”

The TIGER grant application deadline is March 19, with the federal transportation department announcing recipients at a later date.

Despite the proposals being tentative, Fellows expressed optimism with their outcome.

“It is an exciting opportunity that we’re glad to be a part of,” he said. “This is not just a benefit to New Buffalo, but to the entire rail corridor, too.”