Why high-speed rail to Chicago could spark Michigan's economy
Chicago is Michigan's kind of town.
Or, rather, Chicago is former Michigan residents' kind of town.
The Windy City is the top destination outside Michigan for the state's recent college graduates, according to research conducted by Ann Arbor-based nonpartisan think tank Michigan Future.
Yes, Michigan is exporting talent to Chicago faster than any other major metropolitan region. Encouraging, no?
College grads are flocking to Chicago because of the region's quality of life and strong economy. Which is why it makes sense to invest in improved transportation options that make Chicago seem just a little bit closer.
Federal and state authorities are announcing today that Michigan will receive nearly $200 million in federal grants to upgrade rail lines so that trains can travel up to 110 miles an hour in some parts of the route from Detroit to Chicago.
“This funding will help move Michigan and the nation forward by making high-speed rail a part of our economic infrastructure,” U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, said in a statement. “Our economic competitors around the world have long enjoyed the benefits of high-speed rail service between their cities. They have demonstrated that high-speed service can create jobs and promote economic growth, and that it can provide a more energy-efficient alternative.”
To be sure, this is not high-speed rail. It's faster rail. High-speed rail is what they have in Europe and Japan.
But faster rail sets the stage for even faster rail — and that, ultimately, is a good thing for Michigan.
Let's set aside, for a moment, the fact that true high-speed rail is extremely costly. It would take billions to build a rail system that could transport passengers from Detroit to Chicago in, say, 2 hours.
And before you can even construct a high-speed rail network, you need to get past the numerous bureaucratic and political issues, including the powerful freight companies that control the tracks.
Nonetheless, high-speed rail would provide a quick way to visit Chicago — and that's meaningful.
Rail proponent Rich Sheridan, CEO of Ann Arbor-based software firm Menlo Innovations, has often said that he has to compete with Chicago tech companies for talent — and that it would be much easier if his employees could easily vacation in Chicago.
Think this is just an isolated problem? Not so.
In a 2008 study, Michigan Future found that the state loses about 11 percent of its knowledge-industry college grads to Chicago.
And you have to believe that percentage edged upward as jobs evaporated in Michigan in 2008 and 2009.
Now that Michigan's jobs market has stabilized, though, people may be more willing to stay in Michigan for work — as long as they can visit Chicago from time to time.
Cultivating a base of talented workers in Michigan is the fastest way to reconstruct Michigan's economy.
The construction jobs that come along with upgraded rail tracks are nice. But they're not sustainable.
The sustainable jobs created by companies that come to Michigan because they can find the talent they need to thrive — that's what we need.
"Rail and multimodal transportation options are key to attracting 21st century talent," said John Petz, chairman of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce and director of government and community relations for Domino's Farms Corp. "In today’s economy, we cannot expect to compete with other states or global regions without the necessary infrastructure in place. This funding is a great opportunity for our business community and the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area.”
As the fight for high-speed rail continues, it's politically significant that Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, is throwing his support behind the federal rail grants. He is singing the praises of the rail grants alongside several Democratic politicians, including U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. John Dingell.
But there's still a subtle divide that serves as a reminder of the long-term challenges associated with building a high-speed rail network.
The number of times the phrase "high-speed" occurs in the press release issued by Stabenow and LaHood about the news: 12.
The number of times the same phrase appears in the press release by Dingell and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: 22.
The number of times it appears in Snyder's press release: zero.