Work begins on Grand Rapids’ $5.1 million Amtrak station

From The Grand Rapids Press:

grandrapidsstation2More than a year and a half after its official groundbreaking ceremony, Grand Rapids’ new Amtrak station finally is being built.

Crews began moving earth this week to prepare for the $5.1 million facility’s construction after more than a year of delays pushed back the highly anticipated project’s start date.

“It’s been a long time, really, because we always planned on this being a truly intermodal station,” said Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid bus system, which is spearheading the project.

The new station, which will be named for former West Michigan congressman Vern Ehlers, is expected to be built by December, and operational by April 2014, Varga said.

Ehlers joined a smattering of local officials for an October 2011 groundbreaking ceremony at the station’s site, just south of Rapid Central Station near the Wealthy Street overpass.

Work building the station was slow to begin after the ceremony because of prolonged talks between the Michigan Department of Transportation and CSX Corp., which owns the railroad to which the station will connect.

Those talks, on switching and signaling on the tracks, were resolved last month, giving project leaders a green light to begin building the new facility.

Once the new station is operational next year, the existing Amtrak station at the corner of Wealthy Street and Market Avenue will be decommissioned.

Calling the new station “intermodal” means, in essence, multipurpose. For travelers, it means the ability to access commuting options in one area.

A person, for example, would be able to ride a Rapid, Greyhound or Indian Trails bus to Central Station and hop aboard a Chicago-bound train, or the other way around.

“Even back in 2004,” when Rapid Central Station opened, “that was part of our plan,” Varga said. “It’s been a long time in the making, which is why sometimes you just have to be patient and you have to be diligent.”

grandrapidsstation1The station is being paid for using $3.8 million in federal funding earmarked by Ehlers during his time in Congress (though he later voted against the bill that contained the money).

The Downtown Development Authority also funneled $850,000 to the project, which will be used to build the actual brick-and-mortar station.

The city of Grand Rapids also fronted several hundred-thousand to reinforce a sewer line beneath the station, and to relocate a fiber optic cable conduit at the site.

Project leaders are able to spend as much as $5.9 million on the project, per guidelines approved by the Interurban Transit Partnership, which operates The Rapid.

Eventually, officials hope the new station allows Amtrak to add a second daily trip between Grand Rapids and Chicago.

Now, the Pere Marquette Line only runs to and from Chicago once per day. The line saw a ridership decrease for the first six months of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2012.

Still, the line also has grown by leaps and bounds, and its ridership gains since 1997 have far outpaced Amtrak’s other Michigan routes.