Mt Pleasant could get shuttle train

From The Mount Pleasant Morning Sun:

What started as a brainstorming conversation on how to transport people from one end of Mt. Pleasant to another has morphed into the possibility of a shuttle train that would operate within the city.

The shuttle, which is only a concept now but could come to fruition within two years, would run on existing train tracks from Pickard on the north end of town to the SmartZone on Central Michigan University’s campus.

Which is where the idea has it’s beginning.

“We had community forums last year, asking what sort of development should happen in the SmartZone,” said Erin Strang, CEO of Central Michigan University Research Corporation, which anchors the SmartZone. “The conversation, whether it was residential, retail, business, always came back to this: what does transportation look like?”

During months of discussion, Strang said that the consensus seemed to be that a mixed-use development on the property should have less traffic, less parking lots, and more walkability.

With working train tracks running along the east end of the SmartZone a train made sense, so CMURC started researching what it would take for a shuttle to run the length of the city.

They contacted Great Lakes Central Railroad, which operates the tracks that run through Mt. Pleasant.

President Chris Bagwell told CMURC he’d been waiting for a call like that for years.

“This concept works in a college environment,” Bagwell said. “It’s a great fit.”

And, as it turned out, the logistics of implementing and running a shuttle service isn’t too far out of reach.

GLCR is already capable of handling all operation of the shuttle trains including providing engineers and the cars themselves, and the majority of the infrastructure exists.

With the exception of two switches that would need to be installed, the tracks are ready and classified for shuttle passenger travel.

GLCR owns 23 shuttle cars that are refurbished, waiting on other larger, more expensive projects in the state to be ready to go, some of which are years down the road.

Michigan Department of Transportation, which owns the tracks, knows about the project and is in support of the concept, Strang said.

As the concept stands, the shuttle would run the just-over three miles from the north to south ends of town, with four or five stops along the way, between 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m.

Stops would be Pickard Street, downtown Mt. Pleasant, either one or two stops on CMU’s campus, and the SmartZone.

The stops would be “subway style” meaning quick 15-20 second passenger boarding times, Bagwell said, with a trip from one end of town to the other taking around 15 minutes.

In addition to the funds needed to be paid to GLCR to operate the shuttle ––about $1 million per year–– stations or platforms would have to be built at each stop.

First though, Bagwell said an authority or governing board would need to be created to oversee the operation. Then, a feasibility and ridership study would be conducted.

“It’s going to take community support,” Bagwell said.

Both Bagwell and Strang tout the economic impact a shuttle train can have on a community.

“That connectivity increases marketability,” Strang said. “If someone is waiting on a platform, and there’s a little shop there, of course they’ll poke their head in; we’ve met with developers who, when they learn about the possibility of the shuttle ask why we didn’t lead with that information. There are so many possibilities.”

Strang also says there are larger implications that can be explored, like tying the shuttle into existing public transportation options.

If funding existed and an authority was created, Bagwell said it would be about a two-year process to make the shuttle a reality.

The conceptualizing has created a buzz in the passenger train world as well; the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers is holding their member meeting at CMURC’s office Saturday. Both Bagwell and Strang are on the agenda, with Strang set to speak about the possibility of a Mt. Pleasant shuttle.

That meeting, scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., is open to the public.

“It’s exciting because this enables our ability to develop the SmartZone, and beyond the SmartZone,” Strang said. “Anytime business is growing, it’s a win for us.”