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Rail forums build momentum for a more connected future

Part way through a run of 16 public forums on the future of Michigan’s rail system, it’s clear that people from all walks of life crave more options for getting around the Great Lakes State.

“What we’re seeing at these forums is that Michiganders want to be more connected,” said Tim Fischer, deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) and the architect of the forums.

“People want the option to get around the state by rail for business and for pleasure,” he added. “And they understand that a modern transportation system that includes a robust passenger rail network will create new economic opportunities, particularly with volatile gas prices.”

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will hold official listening sessions in September to help shape the state rail plan, as U.S. law requires of states that receive federal rail grants. In the meantime, Michigan By Rail—a partnership of MEC, the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP) and local groups—is hosting forums designed to jumpstart the discussion.

“These meetings are a good way to have useful, constructive conversations about rail investment, and to find out what people across the state want Michigan’s rail system to look like,” said Fischer.

The forums are spread across the state. Each includes an interactive mapping session, during which participants form groups and sketch their vision for the future of Michigan’s rail system. The meetings wrap up with an open discussion on a range of topics, including the state’s existing railways and options for financing improvements.

Common themes have emerged from the discussions. Many participants have said they want to travel to the eastern U.S. without having to first ride west to Chicago. Others have remarked that Detroit Metro airport should be accessible by rail. Each forum has included mention of a Grand Rapids–Detroit connection. And so far, every group has proposed routes from Chicago and/or southeast Michigan to Traverse City.

That last idea was a big hit at the standing-room-only Traverse City forum, where passenger service bringing tourists Up North is a powerful economic development tool.

About 70 people got a small taste of that journey on their way to the meeting in Traverse City as they wound northward from Cadillac through forests and across rivers. The passenger train—provided for the event by the Great Lakes Central Railroad—was the first to travel the route since the Grand Traverse Dinner Train served its last meal six years ago. Based on the enthusiasm of the passengers, it probably won’t be the last.
 
“This is just a glimpse of the opportunity we Michiganders have in front of us,” said John Langdon, MARP’s West Michigan chair.

“Taking this train is a reminder that what we’re talking about at these forums is doable,” he added. “Other states are finding creative ways to fund increases in frequency along with rail upgrades, and they’re getting substantial bang for their buck.”

A recent MDOT study hinted at the potential return Michigan could see on investment in a modernized rail system. The department found that the $7 million the state already invests each year in passenger rail creates a whopping $61 million in economic benefits for communities along Michigan’s three Amtrak routes.

Meanwhile, demand for passenger rail is skyrocketing. The number of Michiganders riding Amtrak rose by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2008. Nationwide, Amtrak is expected to break its all-time ridership record this year.

“Wherever we’ve been able to expand service, the public responds in extraordinary ways,” said Derrick James, director of government affairs for Amtrak. “The ridership is always greater than we’ve anticipated.”

And big-city residents aren’t the only ones excited about passenger rail, as was made clear by the roughly 130 people who turned out for the Traverse City forum. James said that in traveling his assigned region—which stretches from Ohio to Montana—he has seen that people in small and mid-sized towns “are clamoring for more transportation options.”

Typical forum participants include legislators, state agency representatives, community leaders, local elected officials and—most importantly—average citizens seeking more transportation alternatives.

The meetings will continue until December. To find a forum near you, or for more information, visit www.michiganbyrail.org.
-Andrew McGlashen
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