A passenger rail study that will evaluate the feasibility of running regular train service between Petoskey, Traverse City and Ann Arbor is set to leave the station this spring, the Traverse Ticker reported on Feb. 10. The “A2TC Train” study is a partnership between the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Groundwork Center, which spearheaded the fundraising campaign.
The study is backed by an $80,000 federal transportation planning grant, $20,000 in state funding and a $20,000 local match. The study aims to explore connecting the busy economic hubs of southeastern Michigan with rapidly growing tourism destinations in northern Michigan via scheduled passenger rail service. MDOT is putting the final touches on a request-for-proposal for the study and plans to put the project out to bid in the next few weeks.
The proposed A2TC route includes multiple destination stops in Cadillac, Mt. Pleasant, Alma, Owosso, Durand and Howell, in addition to Petoskey, Traverse City and Ann Arbor.
We asked Groundwork program director Jim Lively about the year ahead for A2TC.
Q: What are the next steps with the Rail to Ann Arbor project in 2017? What is the Michigan Department of Transportation doing. What is the Groundwork Center doing?
A: In 2017 we will get answers to a lot of the questions that people have about the potential for passenger rail service between Ann Arbor and Traverse City and Petoskey. Those answers will come from a feasibility study that will be conducted by a consulting rail expert, and managed by the Groundwork Center. The MDOT Rail Division will support this study by helping to select the consultant, and providing some of the key data about track conditions and upgrade costs.
Q: Who and where have been the Rail project’s key sources of support? What has them excited about the venture?
A: We have been pleased by the support from many of communities along the rail corridor for this study. The enthusiasm stems from the economic boost that passenger rail could provide the downtowns where the train would drop off passengers. A train would literally connect communities from southeast Michigan with mid and northern Michigan, and enhance their profiles.
Q: How soon might we actually see passenger rail between Traverse City and Ann Arbor? What are the primary impediments?
A: These are exactly the questions that the feasibility study will be answering. It will focus on the infrastructure upgrades necessary to provide a reasonable travel time, and estimate the demand for the service. It will also look at the readiness of the train stations and mobility options in the communities where the train would stop. And it will provide a series of options for operational management of the passenger service.
We have estimated that it could be until 2025 before we see daily passenger rail service along these tracks. There are plenty of track improvements that will be necessary to reinstate train service. However, we are also excited by the potential to run ‘excursion trains’ that could carry passengers to special events in communities along the track, such as University of Michigan or Central Michigan University football games, Traverse City Film Festival or Cherry Festival, or color tour weekends to Petoskey.
While there are impediments that will described in the feasibility study, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the return of passenger service. First, the train tracks exist and are currently operational for hauling freight trains. That means we are focused on upgrades, not any new track. Second, we have the support of both MDOT Rail Division for this concept because it is part of the adopted State Rail Plan. We also have support from Great Lakes Central, the company that has leased the tracks for freight service. Third, we have political support of the many communities served by the tracks. And finally, we believe we will discover very broad enthusiasm from the general public for the opportunity to travel north to Michigan’s tourist destinations of Cadillac, Traverse City and Petoskey, and southeast to Michigan’s cultural center of Detroit.
Q: And how would you recommend passing that time while riding the rails?
A: Train travel offers hands-free options that driving doesn’t, as well as a relaxed pace and social interactions that complement the scenic beauty outside the window. It’s not intended to be faster than driving or air travel, but reasonably competitive while offering a very different travel option. Rail passengers can work, sleep, read, text, play cards, enjoy the scenery, or socialize with their travel companions.
Q: We know about the amenities of Traverse City (and Petoskey) and Ann Arbor? But what are some cool ways to experience amenities at other stops along the eventual route?
A: It’s important to note that the existing rail line serves six communities that boast more than 90,000 college or university students — including University of Michigan, Alma College, Central Michigan University, Baker College/ Cadillac, Northwestern Michigan College and University Center, and North Central Michigan College. Each of these towns offer their own unique cultural experiences.
Q: You’ll be holding public meetings along the route, right? What is the objective of these meetings? What do you hope to hear at them?
A: We intend to hold public meetings before and after the feasibility study. The first meetings will be to gather input from the community that can be useful in the study; and the second set of meetings will present the findings.
Q: I know you attended “that other Big Ten school” in the mitten state, but if the train to Ann Arbor runs on the weekend of a college football home game, you’ll show up at the Big House and root for the Wolverines, right Jim?
A: I’ll be simultaneously encouraging Ann Arbor to complete the connection into Detroit so I can be rooting on my Tigers!