Michigan may spend big on passenger trains, eying service to Canada, Up North
- Federal grant money is funding improvements along Michigan passenger rail lines
- Michigan Senate proposed $100 million for new state rail grants
- Eventually, advocates studying new passenger routes to Traverse City and Canada
More money could be coming soon for Michigan passenger rail projects, which advocates hope could lead to better service and, eventually, new routes for Up North and Ontario getaways.
A northern Michigan passenger rail group in 2022 also received $2.3 million in state and federal funding to research a new route connecting metro Detroit to northern Michigan cities including Traverse City and Petoskey, while the state is pursuing money to extend rails to Canada.
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Some Michigan Democrats, now in the legislative majority, also want to chip in on passenger rail improvements. The state Senate budget proposal included $100 million for grants to "encourage high-speed rail development" by providing matching funds that local governments need to qualify for federal money.
"I'd like to see us modernize our mass transit the way a lot of other states have," said Sen. Veronica Klinefelt, an Eastpointe Democrat who chairs the transportation budget subcommittee.
The United States has long been eclipsed by other countries when it comes to rail investment. Amtrak, the national passenger railroad company, historically hasn’t been profitable, although the company reported a big boost in ridership in the 2022 fiscal year.
Plans and studies don’t always result in tracks on the ground, as passenger trains are expensive and federal grant programs providing funding are competitive. Michigan has seen plans come and go for decades, without much progress.
But officials are optimistic that Michigan, which had 1,776 railroad depots in 1905, is on the verge of a rail revival.
“There's more excitement in the rail industry than there probably has been in a long time to actually look at the future and see what improvements can be done to make our operations more efficient, or to grow,” Peter Anastor, the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Rail administrator, told Bridge Michigan.
Annual statistics on Michigan’s three passenger train routes — which run from Chicago to Detroit and Pontiac (Wolverine service), Chicago to Port Huron (Blue Water) and Chicago to Grand Rapids (Pere Marquette) — over the last 30 years show the state’s ridership peaked at roughly 795,996 passengers in 2013 and generally hovered above 700,000 passengers per year until the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2022, 623,989 passengers rode trains in Michigan, up from 2021 but still below pre-pandemic levels.
Michigan has challenges for long-distance trains, namely that it is a peninsula and not a pass-through state. But the state is poised to capitalize on increased rail investments along with other Midwest states seeking federal grant money, said Laura Kliewer, director of the Illinois-based Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.
“There's a lot of new possibilities out there,” Kliewer said, noting that faster and more frequent trains running on Michigan’s existing lines would go a long way toward increased ridership.
The ideal scenario for Michigan train riders would be a more interconnected, streamlined Midwest rail network and increased frequency of train departures, so riders don’t have to arrange their day around a train schedule, she added.
The Michigan Transportation Department has eight active federal grants open along the state’s three passenger rail routes, including projects to replace railroad ties and bridges, prevent trespassing on train tracks, even out curves to allow trains to run up to 110 mph and fix Detroit’s New Center station.
The Office of Rail has also submitted federal applications for competitive grants to improve and increase service on all three existing routes, as well as a possible extension of the Detroit line into Canada.
“Even with this additional money at the federal level, and potentially support at the state level, there's probably still not going to be enough money to do everything that everybody wants to do, so we're trying to be very smart and specific in what we're applying for,” Anastor said.
Long-term, additional funding options could make a long-discussed proposed route connecting southeast Michigan to northern Michigan a reality.
Carolyn Ulstad of the Traverse City-based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities said a grant-funded study is set to begin soon to plot specifics of what a new north-south rail route in Michigan would look like and cost, as well as gather public input.
“We did the feasibility study in the past, which is just saying, ‘Hey, is this possible?’” Ulstad said. “But now, this next phase … means that this could actually happen.”
The 2018 feasibility study the center conducted on the plan estimated a high-speed passenger rail line connecting Ann Arbor and Traverse City could generate more than $100 million in revenue by 2050.
How much the project would cost largely depends on how fast the trains go — 60 mph trains running for a 4.5-hour trip would cost about $40 million in track repairs, while a 110 mph service that cuts the trip to 3.5 hours would require replacing tracks and cost upwards of $1 billion, the study concluded.
It will still be quite a while before riders could take a train to or from Traverse City, Ulstead acknowledged.
The current study alone is expected to take up to two years to complete. But she said she’s encouraged by bipartisan interest in rail at the state level, as well as the big boost in federal funding options.
“It’s really encouraging to see leaders in the state noting that rail is an essential piece of our transportation system,” she said, adding that additional passenger rail lines could attract more residents and provide better transportation options for the state’s aging population.
State lawmakers are also considering bills aimed at clearing up traffic congestion at railroad crossings, an issue acutely felt in southeast Michigan towns with a heavy freight rail presence.
A Senate-passed proposal would establish a grant program for grade separation projects, which involves building a bridge or underpass at busy intersections for railroads so the train track no longer intersects with vehicle traffic.
To be eligible, local governments would have to apply with a description of the proposed project and offer a minimum 10 percent match of local, private or federal funds.
Separately, both the House and Senate budget proposals include funding for high-priority rail grade separation projects.
The Senate plan includes $50 million for a railroad underpass or overpass near Van Horn and M-85 in Trenton, where two people died in 2019 when their car hit a moving train.
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