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To spur job growth, towns Up North bet on trainsPrint

Thriving Communities | August 8, 2013 | By James Bruckbauer

Freight rail could boost small town economies.

Earlier this week the Traverse City Record-Eagle published a story about this region’s growing interest in freight rail and its potential to revitalize small town economies.

This region’s growing focus on rail comes at no surprise. Small towns and companies in this area must forecast unstable energy and transportation costs as they plan for future growth. And rail, when part of a network of transportation options, provides the long-term stability, security, and leverage that accountants like to see on spreadsheets in a time when it seems like the only constant is volatility. In 2009 alone, trains moved 33 percent of Michigan’s freight, and that number is expected to grow by almost 3% each year.

And even though we’re just outside the Toronto to St. Louis trade area, this region is well positioned to revive its rail connection to the rest of North America.

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) still owns the land along a rail line between the Traverse City region and Ann Arbor area, and leases the tracks to Great Lakes Central, who operates freight trains and even plans to someday run passenger trains between the Traverse City area and downstate.

In addition, Governor Snyder’s administration and MDOT Director Kirk Steudle have made freight and passenger rail one of the top transportation priorities in the state. In fact, state and federal officials have invested almost $700 million on rail improvements between Detroit and Chicago since 2008.

What’s more, Traverse City’s representative in Lansing, Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), is one of the biggest proponents of rail. In 2010, the State Legislature passed a bill he introduced that allowed Michigan to accept a huge federal grant to bring track speeds between Detroit and Chicago up to 110 mph. Now, Schmidt is chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure and continues to make sure this state continues to invest in passenger rail.

And finally, public support for rail continues to grow. During MDOT’s public outreach efforts in 2010, participants all over the state identified freight and passenger rail service to Traverse City and Petoskey as top priority. Many see rail as solution to traffic congestion on some of the state’s clogged highways. And Michigan's passenger rail lines continue to break ridership records.

MDOT will release the findings of its study on the economic potential for freight rail Up North in the coming months.

The opportunity to revive rail in this area is uniquely attractive.  All aboard!

Here’s the story from Sunday’s Record-Eagle.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at