Imagine packing a bag for the weekend, heading over to the Filling Station in downtown Traverse City, enjoying a leisurely lunch—and boarding a train. As you settle into your seat, the train pulls south along Boardman Lake toward Kingsley. You catch up on work as forests, farms, and mid-Michigan towns like Cadillac, Mt. Pleasant, Owosso, and Howell pass by, before you finally roll in to Ann Arbor.
It’s quite a vision—modern passenger rail service connecting Traverse City to Ann Arbor. It would strengthen our regional economy and stimulate development along the route. It would take cars off the highways, with the environmental benefits of cleaner air and less fuel consumption. It would use an existing asset to offer a new transportation option for those of us who live in the Traverse City area and an appealing new way for visitors to come to our area.
But what’s most exciting? It can be a reality, and it’s the Michigan Land Use Institute’s goal that within 10 years, regular passenger train service connects Traverse City and Ann Arbor, with excursion trips by the summer of 2016.
Michigan is already advancing passenger rail at a pace we haven’t seen since the 1800s. Major improvements to the tracks from Detroit to Chicago have trains moving at 110 mph on some stretches, and plans are under way to reach that speed for the entire trip, cutting two hours off the travel time. In the heart of Detroit, a new 3.3-mile urban streetcar line along Woodward Avenue is under construction and set to open in 2016. There is also significant progress to establish commuter rail service between Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Howell.
MLUI wants to capitalize on that momentum and bring passenger rail to northwest Michigan. Why Traverse City to Ann Arbor?
The tracks between TC and A2 are still in place; in fact, the plans to connect Ann Arbor to Howell use the same intact, state-owned rail line that comes to Traverse City. The most expensive part of a transportation project is often the cost of buying land or laying new tracks—in this case, the state won’t have to worry about those costs.
The tracks are in relatively good shape. Right now, Great Lakes Central Railroad leases the tracks from the state to ship freight projects in and out of northern Michigan. 90 percent of the route is ready for passenger service; in fact, 65 percent of the tracks are rated for trains to travel up to 59 mph.
There’s also overwhelming enthusiasm and support from the public for the idea. When MDOT sought public input for the State Rail Plan in 2011, more people identified Traverse City as needing rail service than any other place in Michigan. That support prompted MDOT to include a northern Michigan passenger rail study in its statewide plan.
The benefits to the new rail route would not be limited to just Traverse City and Ann Arbor. It would have a major impact on mid-Michigan downtowns like Kingsley, Cadillac, Mt. Pleasant, Alma, and Owosso. A 2009 Grand Valley State University study found that Michigan cities with once-a-day train service boosted their downtown economies by $7 to $45 million each year. The route would also make Michigan more attractive to young people and talent; a 2014 Rockefeller Foundation study showed that 86 percent of young people are looking for cities with public transportation—including rail—when looking for a place to live.
There are a number of studies that need to be conducted, including an initial MDOT feasibility study that will explore costs, operating structures, funding sources, and ridership. An environmental analysis and review comes next, followed by engineering studies, construction, and equipment.
MLUI has a 10-year timeline to help make this happen, but it won’t without the most important asset of all—public support. Over the next three years, we plan to work with partners across the state to build that support and channel enthusiasm into an apparatus that helps MDOT identify resources and builds leadership from elected officials to make it happen.
It’s crucial that people get involved in this project. It’s an incredible opportunity for communities along the corridor to work together to support a project that benefits all of Michigan.