Mt. Pleasant could be a stop on railway to Traverse City, Ann Arbor

From the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun:

There are almost 300 miles between Ann Arbor to Traverse City.

With a potential railway reconnecting some of Michigan’s largest cities and regions, Mt. Pleasant could be stop on that journey.

Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a Traverse City based non-profit organization, presented the project at Monday’s city commission meeting to connect southeast Michigan via train to northern regions of the state.

Groundwork policy specialist Jim Bruckbauer said the project could revitalize parts of Michigan by connecting them to the rest of the state.

“This is an exciting time for trains in Michigan,” he said. “Right now, the state is looking at how to connect Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and other big cities in the state. Our job now is to connect Ann Arbor to Traverse City.”

Bruckbauer explained the project, which would use existing train tracks owned by the state, would create a connection between Michigan’s major cities to the south, and its more northern municipalities such as Traverse City and Mt. Pleasant.

He presented a map of potential towns to be included in the train routes

Along the way, the rail could connect with Alma, Cadillac and Owosso. Port Huron to the east, and as far west as Holland and Kalamazoo could be included as well.

While a “feasibility study” is planned for 2016, Groundwork also expects to conduct an engineering study through 2020, adding summer weekend service in 2021, with full passenger service expected in 2025.

Along with the feasibility study will come summer and fall “excursion” trains in following years. The rides are typically intended for specific events, but Bruckbauer said Groundwork intends to expand the excursion rides to allow for more information gathering, and engage the communities from the beginning.

“That’s so we can start building interest in the service,” he said. “Eventually, we want them to become full-blown passenger services.”

Citing a 2012 survey from the Michigan Department of Transportation, Bruckbauer said the “number one priority” for residents state-wide was a rail connection to Traverse City.

“It would be another option for Michiganders to get across the state,” he said. “There’s a lot of connection between the southern and northern parts of the state.”

He said many of those needing transportation are young professionals, who he said the project could attract to stay in Michigan.

“It will make Michigan more attractive to young people and talent,” Bruckbauer said. “(The State) is seeing this project as a way for the next generation of workers to have the transportation they need without having to rely on non-public transportation.”

Along with riders, Bruckbauer said the train would bring significant economic growth to cities on the rail. Citing a 2009 study from Grand Valley State University, he said once-a-day train service could add $45 million per year to downtown economies.

Following his presentation, Bruckbauer fielded questions from a nearly-full commission chamber at city hall. Attendees were offered to sign a petition in support, and received informative materials about the project.

City Commissioner Matt Sous asked about funding, specifically how much the city of Mt. Pleasant would have to pay to be involved in the project.

“After the first study, what kind of commitment will you need?” Sous asked. “We don’t even have a train station in Mt. Pleasant.”

The feasibility study would cost about $100,000 to $120,000, Bruckbauer said, with a federal grant potentially paying for 80 percent of the study. Local communities will be asked to pay 20 percent of the initial study, but Bruckbauer said it was “too soon” to attach a dollar value to the full project.

The federal grant request is due in February. Bruckbauer said he is seeking letters of support to add to the application.

“The study is meant to figure out things like costs, volume,” he said. “Right now, it’s too early to tell.”

Many attendees asked if the project would create jobs for their city. Bruckbauer said several jobs will be generated locally for the project.

“I hesitate to estimate the actual amount of jobs, but it absolutely would create jobs,” he said. “Construction, whatever operating structure would add to what is already there, so it would be more jobs.”

In attendance, Alma Mayor Mel Nyman commended the project for including his city and its potential benefits for Alma’s college student population.

“I’m very pleased to be here to support his project,” Nyman said. “That track goes right through the campus of Alma College. We could pack students up and easily send them in any direction. It would be a lot easier than them having to drive.”

Local attorney Damian Fisher said he was concerned about connecting the transportation authorities of every region on the rail. He said creating those relationships between authorities should be the first priority of the project.

“At the end of the day, this service won’t work without integrating all of the communities,” Fisher said. “It’s going to go across jurisdictions. That needs to happen now.”

Fisher also mentioned multiple Native American tribes that live along the rail. He said Native American communities could create financial partnerships to help pay for the project.

“You have at least three tribes on this line,” Fisher said. “All those are conduits to federal dollars independent of any state or federal restrictions. They’re very good collaborators to be at the table.”