Grand Rapids, Detroit train idea taking shape

From The Detroit News:

The Michigan Environmental Council has undertaken a $100,000 feasibility study on public transporation options, including establishing rail service between Detroit and Grand Rapids.(Photo: John T. Greilick;file / The Detroit News)
The Michigan Environmental Council has undertaken a $100,000 feasibility study on public transporation options, including establishing rail service between Detroit and Grand Rapids.(Photo: John T. Greilick;file / The Detroit News)

Passenger train service between Detroit and Grand Rapids could be reinstated in the next decade if state transportation experts determine the public has an appetite for a new line and can figure out how to pay for it.

Supporters say the idea of connecting Michigan’s two largest cities by train is gaining appeal on both sides of the state as each undergo economic and cultural revivals making passenger service more appealing to business travelers and tourists.

The Michigan Environmental Council, the Lansing-based group that supports increasing public transportation options, has undertaken a $100,000 feasibility study and embarked on a series of hearings this summer along the route to get the public’s input. More hearings are scheduled later this month in Dearborn, Plymouth, Ypsilanti and Brighton. Also involved in the effort are the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“There really is not a way to connect to Michigan’s major cities and our coasts without taking a car,” said Elizabeth Treutel, a transportation police expert with the council. “There are no rail options. If Michigan wants to be competitive, if we want to attract talent, if we want to keep our college-educated people here, we have to have more and better options to get around. And people have to be willing to recognize that and invest in it.”

Even boosters acknowledge that re-instituting the service will be challenging.

“Getting rail service up and running is a very difficult task,” said Kathleen Lomako, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which helps regional leaders with transportation planning. SEMCOG has been working on a passenger rail project from Ann Arbor to Detroit for years and struggled with funding.

“Connecting our region to other parts of the state, it’s a good thing. It’s about figuring out how difficult is that going to be to do, how much it’s going to cost and who pays for it. Those are all questions that need to be answered.”

The Detroit to Grand Rapids line isn’t the only one being explored. Preliminary discussions have been underway for months on establishing a rail connection from Ann Arbor to Traverse City. The Michigan Land Use Institute is pushing MDOT officials to study the feasibility of the route using existing freight rails with the hope that it could be operational by 2025.

Michigan hasn’t had a Grand Rapids-to-Detroit line since Amtrak was created in 1971. Those heading the effort said that four feasibility studies on resuming service were done in the 1980s through 2002.

The current Coast-to-Coast Passenger Rail study is examining three possible routes that would run on freight tracks from Holland through Grand Rapids and Lansing and to Detroit. Two routes would go through Ann Arbor; one going through Jackson and Ann Arbor and the third through Plymouth and Brighton.

The study will be conducted by a transportation management firm to determine cost, time, ridership and how to fund it. It will also consider public feedback given at meetings held by the Michigan By Rail team, a coalition of organizations led by MEC and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.

Organizers said the line could take a decade to implement. The train, Treutel said, would have to go between 79 and 110 mph to compete with car travel.

The only way to get from Detroit to Grand Rapids and back by passenger train involves traveling to Chicago and connecting for a return trip.

Andrew Layman, who lives in Ann Arbor and attended a public hearing on the rail project there last month, said he’s interested in seeing better rail options in the state that are “reliable and affordable.” But he worries about whether the public will eventually support the service with tax dollars.

“The entire country and the state of Michigan is lacking, really,” said Laymen, 29, comparing the state’s train service to that of Europe. “I just think we’re behind the times and this is long past due. It’s a good initial study.”

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who backs the passenger rail concept, said he’d like to see it “be a reality” rather than a “pipe dream of train enthusiasts.’’

“I suspect that people here would want to make good use of a train if it was available to Detroit for business, for entertainment, to go over and see a Tigers game in the afternoon and the Red Wings in the evening,” Heartwell said. “I hope there would be a similar appetite in Detroit to come over to Grand Rapids … for ArtPrize or to drink the craft beers.”

But Heartwell sees more taxes as the stumbling block.

“If you are looking at Proposal 1, you say it’s a pretty slim appetite,” the mayor said of last spring’s statewide road proposal that was trounced by voters.

State officials said they are interested but proceeding cautiously.

“MDOT is working with the locals to address the legislative requirements, but there is a lot of ground to cover before this would advance beyond a study,” said Tim Hoeffner, director of MDOT’s office of rail. “We will need to examine various factors like what the ridership and revenue will be, where the operating funding would come from, whether or not communities would provide stations, would the host railroads allow it, and what kind of safety systems are needed.”

Still, Treutel said there is a “viable reason to look at this right now” in part because Amtrak ridership has been climbing over the last decade.

Michael Ford, the CEO of the Regional Transit Authority, said that although his focus is on improving transit in southeastern Michigan, the discussions for the passenger rail service are important for the public to weigh.

“Any mobility options that can connect the region from a city like Grand Rapids into Detroit would be obviously very, very important,” Ford said. “People want more mobility, they want to be able to get to great cities and go back and forth and not have to take their car.”