Minutes of MARP&MHSRA meeting – August 16, 2008 – St. Joseph

Joint Meeting
St. Joseph Public Library, St. Joseph, Michigan

August 16, 2008

Those Signing In: Hugh Gurney, Michael Frezell, June Troost, John Guidinger, Bob Tischbein, Hazel Rood, John Gottlick, Kay Chase, Jack Kessler, Jared Becker, Dwight Phillips, Jim Hinkins, J. R. Valderas, Diane Patterson, Robert Patterson, J. P. Des Camp, Roger Webster, Rich Vavra-Musser, John DeLora

Also Present: Rick Harnish, Midwest High Speed Rail Assn.; Juan Ganum, City of Niles; Nick Musson, Southwest Michigan Planning Commission; Robert Judd, Mayor, City of St. Joseph

Chairman DeLora called the meeting to order at 10:20 a.m. He thanked Vavra-Musser for the meeting arrangements.

Vavra-Musser introduced Robert Judd, Mayor of St. Joseph, who welcomed the group to the city. Judd expressed his desire to keep the Pere Marquette route open and initiate high speed rail service between St. Joseph and Chicago. He would appreciate anything MARP could do to further these objectives.

DeLora thanked Judd for his remarks and responded that MARP is on record as supporting continuation of Pere Marquette service no matter which way the high speed line is routed.

All in attendance introduced themselves.

Minutes of the June meeting in Owosso and the July meeting in Lapeer were reviewed and approved.

Second Pere Marquette: Because Amtrak has no excess equipment, the state of Michigan will have to rehabilitate damaged coaches at a cost of $200,000-$300,000 each, according to DeLora. A first approach will be to look for the funding from projects not completed in prior years. DeLora has asked Speaker Pro Tem Sak to check on how much might be available in such unexpended funds. If this approach is not fruitful, then we would then have to ask for additional money from the legislature. This is justified because Michigan trains are frequently sold out and there is no more capacity.

DeLora predicted that a second departure from Chicago around 11:00 a.m. connecting with numerous arriving trains and an evening departure from Grand Rapids would produce the most ridership, possibly 125% of the current Pere Marquette. However, an earlier departure would fit business schedules better. Other states are also planning to rehab cars, so we need to get in line. Cars can be rehabbed in about three months, so if the legislature acts, they could be in service by winter.

In response to a question from Vavra-Musser, DeLora indicated that resolutions from as many governmental bodies as possible would prod the legislature to act. Any cars rehabbed must be certified by Amtrak, so older coaches owned by Blue Water would not pass muster. DeLora responded to Mayor Judd by saying that Amtrak will operate any train that is paid for. He agreed with Judd that the ideal is to serve business.

Guest Speaker:

At this point, guest speaker Rick Harnish, President of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association entered the room and was introduced. He thanked all for their recent donations, which have made it possible for him to have an office separate from his residence. He then gave some background on MWHSRA, which was founded in 1993. At that time, Spain, France, Japan and Germany had at least one high speed line operating. The difficulty of implementing high speed rail in the United States has prompted the organization to resort to manageable objectives, such as having five daily trains operating from Chicago to Springfield in three hours or under. The concept is that if lobbyists were using the conventional trains, they would support high speed projects in the future. MWHSRA has been successful in getting funding for these five daily trains to Springfield plus one additional frequency to Carbondale and one to Quincy. Now the hope is to add trains to additional points in Illinois and to Grand Rapids.

According to Harnish, we need to take advantage of the upcoming change of administration in Washington. Because we will need as much support as possible, Harnish has helped form the Transit Riders Alliance, which now has an e-mail list of 35,000. This group has already demonstrated its effectiveness by barraging the Illinois governor with 1,600 e-mails protesting his proposal to slash Amtrak funding.

Now is the time for a huge expansion with as much as $200 million more expended on an expanded passenger rail system. If Amtrak is unwilling, METRA could run all Midwest trains.

One problem high speed rail faces in the U.S. is that the FRA prohibits high speed trains from operating on conventional tracks. In Europe, many high speed trains continue on conventional tracks direct to beaches, ski resorts and other destinations. Many began operation on conventional tracks through the cities until high speed lines were completed the entire distance of each route.

Harnish sees Spain as the model for the Midwest. That nation has a goal of having all points in Spain within three hours of Madrid. Harnish feels the Midwest’s goal should be similar – every major Midwest city within three hours travel time to Chicago by rail. In addition to high speed, Harnish visualizes a much expanded commuter rail network, with trains on many lines running as frequently as subway lines, similar to what Spain is doing.

Ganum commented that if high speed rail were available, Niles would be within commuting distance of Chicago. He feels the political will to make that possible is now there. DeLora and Phillips agreed that at the national level, they are seeing far more interest in passenger rail among Michigan’s federal delegation. Chase noted that more elected officials appeared pro-rail, but don’t seem to understand the implications of such a stand. Judd observed that from Michigan, we face bottlenecks in Indiana and Illinois. A second line into Chicago was torn out many years ago.

Vavra-Musser agreed that a high speed line from Porter, Indiana into Chicago would be a big improvement. DeLora responded that Amtrak had done a south of Lake Michigan study several years ago. Now Amtrak CEO Kummant sees a Chicago-Detroit high speed line as his showpiece, so action seems likely.

Harnish added that support from Mayor Daley is critical. Unfortunately, Illinois state government is dysfunctional at this time, so transportation improvements tied to a bid for the Olympics are unlikely. The proposed acquisition of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railroad by CN has also poisoned relationships with many suburban communities.

Harnish recommended that Michigan supporters develop a proposal for additional rail service in Michigan, a proposal that was specific enough for people to support, but not so specific that people would get lost in the details. The proposal would be something that could be accomplished in one year. It would build on routes that a public entity had already expended money on. He suggested that it be part of the ninestate Midwest High Speed Rail Plan. He recommended that the first Michigan proposal ask Michigan state legislators to fund one additional train on each route and ask Michigan’s federal legislators to fund the Porter-Chicago high speed line. He would urge Michigan to double its annual support from $7 million annually to $14 million. Some of this appropriation could go for more rolling stock. At the federal level, we would also ask for more equipment. When the first proposal is accomplished, we would then come up with a second proposal, then a third one year proposal.

Harnish suggested that supporters take every opportunity to attend political fundraisers and keep asking the question, “What about more trains?” If they keep hearing from constituents and receiving small donations from them, they will feel that there are votes out there supporting more trains. We need to talk about our proposal at every opportunity and put together a video to aid those for whom public speaking is not easy.

To all elected officials, we should be ready to ask, “Will you support _________________? Will you put that in writing”? Persuade them to introduce or co-sponsor a bill containing your proposal. When the bill goes to the conference committee, let the members of the conference committee know that it has a lot of support. This may require hiring a lobbyist.

Guidinger recalled that MARP did have a lobbyist at one time. He wondered if we could go together with TRU on hiring such a person.

In response to a question from the floor, Harnish agreed that the relationship between Amtrak and the states must change, with the states having more voice. Illinois has a large enough state supported system that they can negotiate with Amtrak from a position of strength. Also, MWHSPA can now afford a lobbyist, who can be at the table.

DeLora suggested an e-mail forwarding service which could keep in contact with legislators. According to Harnish, such a service would cost about $400 per month.

As to what is available for capital improvements from the federal government, $30 million can be expended this year on low cost, sure fire proposals. $100 million is proposed for next year.

In response to Mayor Judd’s concern about initiating commuter service from St. Joseph to Chicago, Harnish acknowledged that state lines complicate the issue. The three states involved must cooperate.

Returning to the issue of a lobbyist, Harnish reported that MWHSRA was paying $24,000 annually for one who also worked for an organization known as the Campaign for A Popular Vote. This lobbyist will be spending more time in Lansing and MARP should stay in touch with him. We need to push passenger trains as a #1 priority. Michigan already has a plan. Now is the time to say, let’s do this this year. Guidinger agreed and urged that we stick to promoting our proposal without beating up on others.

In promoting proposals for trains, Harnish urged that we stress cost effectiveness. Bringing a four lane highway into Galena, Illinois, the cost would be $1 billion. Four trains a day would cost $400,000. We need to talk about energy independence and all alternatives to the automobile, including trains and walking.

Vavra-Musser agreed and stated the alternative was a huge increase in gasoline taxes. One reason for the increase in oil prices is that North Sea production has started down. We need to change the “drill, drill, drill” message. Most of the oil being talked about is speculation – discoveries have not been confirmed. Easy to get oil and easy to get coal are gone. India and China are just getting started, added DeLora. Harnish urged coordination with transit in developing a statewide public transportation plan.

Harnish is trying to get high speed rail into the Obama strategy. He sees nothing positive concerning rail with McCain. In response to Guidinger’s concern about the bad name Amtrak has in some circles, Harnish urged that we keep the Amtrak name out of our discussions and proposals.

Wrapping up, Harnish stressed the need to develop a simple, affordable proposal that can be accomplished within a year or two. We need to then move it to passage by talking to and gaining the support of the people who interact with state legislators, the governor, and our federal representatives. We need to lobby. We need to get the message in the newspapers. We need to get candidates for state and federal offices supporting it. We need to attend political fundraisers and ask questions. In developing and pushing our proposal, we must stress the need, and not worry about the how . If Amtrak can’t run the trains, maybe the freight railroads can be paid to run them. What we need to stress is that we want a workable system.

DeLora suggested that we first review our vision, then develop the proposal. Harnish offered the following steps:

    Always show the state plan, the end product

    Then offer the next step to the state plan

    Point out the key problem, Chicago-Porter

    Then note the second problem, Kalamazoo-East

    Stress the need for rolling stock

    Indicate what can be done right now

When talking to state legislators, point out what they can do and what the federal government needs to do. Ask state legislators to call their federal counterparts and demand Congressional action where needed. To Harnish, the ideal would be trains on all Michigan routes arriving in Chicago by 8:00 – 8:30 a.m.

Particularly when we talk about the national system, we need to support long distance trains as well as those running 400 mile trips. The most reasonable way to get frequent service Chicago-Cleveland is to have four Chicago-New York trains daily. We need to stress that a train is not a plane on the ground, but can connect many intermediate points.

In concluding, DeLora thanked Harnish for all his advice and urged that he join others for lunch at the St. Joseph station. The meeting adjourned at 12:30 p.m.

Respectfully submitted:

Hugh D. Gurney, Secretary


John DeLora, Chair