Amtrak board chief touts high-speed rail, results of stimulus funding during Grand Rapids visit

From The Grand Rapids Press:

The head of Amtrak’s Board of Directors touted strides toward high-speed passenger rail in Michiganand work to enhance Michigan-to-Chicago rail services during a Thursday speech to transit and commerce advocates in Grand Rapids.

Tom Carper, Amtrak’s board chair, also argued Amtrak is an economic driver for communities and states, and said federal stimulus support in 2009 translated to enhanced rail service and job growth.

The visit was prompted by the Michigan Transportation Odyssey, a three-day, 350-mile journey by transit advocates from Detroit to Traverse City meant to highlight the challenges facing public transportation in Michigan.

The travelers had journeyed to Grand Rapids from Kalamazoo by bus prior to Carper’s remarks, which were offered before a transit panel discussion hosted by Rapid Growth Media.

The panel included Carper, an odyssey participant and several Grand Rapids business owners and commerce advocates, including The Right Place Inc. and a Founders Brewing Company co-founder.

“The economic development and community development benefits to passenger rail, you can see the ridership that speaks to itself,” Carper said, pointing to what he said was a record 30.2 million Amtrak riders nationwide in 2011.

Carper said ridership on Michigan’s three rail services, including the Grand Rapids-to-Chicago Pere Marquette line, has grown 60 percent since 2000.

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

Some 797,000 passengers used Amtrak in Michigan in 2011, Carper said, up from 493,400 in 2000.

Statewide, increased ridership has contributed $25.7 million in economic benefits to local businesses and a comparable amount to state residents, Carper said, pointing to a 2009 Grand Valley State University study.

“That’s something that’s lost on a lot of folks,” Carper said, “that the cost of supporting the service is money spent and then it goes away, but that just doesn’t happen.”

Carper applauded state officials for working to purchase a strip of Norfolk Southern railroad between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, which, if successful, would be attached to Amtrak’s 110-mph stretch between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo.

Problematically, though, track conditions and safety concerns led Norfolk Southern to recently downgrade speeds on that Kalamazoo-Dearborn stretch to 25-30 mph from the 79 mph trains had been traveling.

Still, in terms of high-speed rail, the 110-mph plan is “very important thing, a very important thing when it comes to what Amtrak brings to the table in Michigan,” Carper said.

Elsewhere, Carper lauded the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which funneled $1 billion-plus in stimulus funds to Amtrak for train and service upgrades.

Carper said the stimulus dollars also helped create the equivalent of more than 1,000 rail service jobs.

“The administration has supported passenger rail not just with words but with money,” Carper said.

He added federal authorities are working to funnel money to the so-called Englewood Flyer in Chicago, a bypass meant to alleviate freight and passenger train congestion that Carper said would improve on-time performance between Michigan and the city.

“There is good investment in the city of Chicago that’s going to help your service,” Carper said.