Advocates tell residents to lobby for better rail service, stress economic benefits
“The first goes here,” he said referring to what he and many others see as the first priority for an improved rail line in Michigan.
Area residents at the Michigan By Rail public forum Thursday night at Washtenaw Community College were instructed to put stickers on large maps representing important places in Michigan, then draw lines where they would like to see rail service developed. Cooper chose Detroit to Ann Arbor, and one of his group members quickly picked up a marker and drew the next line from Ann Arbor to Chicago.
A pattern quickly emerged as the roughly 10 groups of about 10 people filled in their maps. They connected the cities of southern Michigan’s urbanized network to Chicago and some lines went north to the state’s tourist destinations.
The groups then discussed how to make the vision for a successful rail network a reality. The bottom line, organizers from the Michigan Association of Rail Passengers and Michigan Environmental Council said, is lawmakers must be educated on the potential economic benefits of rail.
John Langdon, a representative from MARP, pointed to 53rd district State Representative-elect and Washtenaw County Commissioner Jeff Irwin.
“We can talk to Amtrak all we want but we’re talking to the wrong people. The gentleman in the back of the room will be in Lansing in January Everybody here needs to get on the phone tomorrow and tell your elected officials what you want.”
The forum was the 16th and final one held statewide since June. MEC Director Tim Fischer said about 25 state lawmakers — more Republicans than Democrats — attended the events, as did countless local representatives.
The Michigan Department of Transportation is in the process of developing a long-term statewide rail plan, and the forums were an opportunity to gather residents' input.
A final report will be distributed to Governor-elect Rick Snyder’s administration, state house and senate leaders and MDOT. That report will be available at www.michiganbyrail.org.
Fischer said organizers found more support then they anticipated, adding "people are actually clamoring for more passenger rail options”. Residents at nearly every meeting expressed a desire to see the same five different rail lines developed, Fischer said. Those are:
- Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor to Traverse City.
- Detroit to Grand Rapids and points between.
- A commuter rail stop at Detroit Metro Airport, which Fischer said even residents in Flint, Bay City and Traverse City asked for.
- A Detroit to Toledo line.
- A line somehow connecting universities and colleges together in some manner.
Amtrak, which was created by Congress in 1970 to provide a nationwide rail system, currently offers service throughout Michigan.
Langdon said it’s possible to buy an Amtrak ticket from the Upper peninsula to Toledo, which connects to all major points east. Though some legs of the trip would be by motor coach, a customer would purchase the ticket through Amtrak.
Derrick James, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs for the Midwest, fielded questions about the company’s service. Amtrak offers three direct rail lines from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Chicago to Lansing and Chicago to Detroit. Ann Arbor is the busiest Michigan station, and ridership statewide increased 8 percent to more than 800,000 passengers last year, James said.
That reflects a national growth in rail ridership. Amtrak saw its best annual figures in fiscal year 2010 with 28 million riders. James said Amtrak still receives a government subsidy, but the company covered 72 percent of its operational costs last year, which is better than any previous year.
He highlighted that was accomplished with trains topping out at 79 miles per hour and limited route options.
“No, it’s not where anyone would want us to be, but in terms of a national railroad, we’re doing pretty well with the resources we have,” he said.
One audience member asked about a train service that would allow residents to take cars up north with them, allowing residents to bypass construction and congestion without giving up their car. James said there is a service that allows passengers from Virginia to Orlando to take their cars, so it is a possibility.
In response to a question from Cooper, James said Amtrak is also exploring purchasing equipment that would allow passengers to bring their bikes aboard.
Several audience members asked why Amtrak couldn’t make improvements to its schedules locally, stop in Ypsilanti or better coordinate interstate schedules.
James said the federal government has pushed for Amtrak to become more of a contract operator, meaning states decide how much or how little they use their service. Schedule improvements and adding more routes is, in part, up to legislators.
“We are only looking at expansions to the extent that states are asking for expansions,” he said. Like other speakers, James said residents need to push the “role trains can play in making our economy hum”.
Irwin will play a larger role in making that happen when he starts his term in the state house in several weeks. He has long advocated for rail projects locally, and said he will continue doing so in Lansing.
“It’s something we’ll certainly be working on, especially in this environment where we’re bleeding jobs, there’s high unemployment, and we’re struggling to get by, because transit is one of the investments government can make to make a tangible and relatively quick impact on the economy,” he said.
One of the obstacles is a Michigan tax structure making it difficult to raise money at a local level without avenues like a local sales taxes, Irwin said. He said it makes sense for southeast Michigan to have a rapid transit system, but it doesn’t make sense for residents in Marquette to pay for it.
But he believes there is a solid case to be made for the economic benefits of rail and rapid transit that could make sense to Republicans and Democrats.
“When you dig down deep into the numbers and look at what transit has accomplished for communities that have invested in it, I think there’s a real strong argument that conservatives will listen to,” he said. “Investing in transit pays big dividends and, in the terminology of our incoming governor, it produces a big outcome and has high ROI (return on investment).”