Detroit-Grand Rapids Rail Service to be Studied

A proposed Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids intercity rail service has reached the study phase.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority approved a $100,000 contract with Transportation Economics and Management Systems for a ridership and cost estimate study.

The study also will examine demand and feasibility for the corridor that also would serve Holland. Planners will look at the economic and financial impacts of establishing the service.

AAATA is acting as a conduit for pass-through grant funding on behalf of the Michigan Environmental Council, which is taking the lead on the study.

“We provide public transit locally and we are in general in favor of providing public transit to connect this region with other regions,” said Michael Benham, the AAATA’s strategic planner. “There are a number of cities in Michigan that are not connected with one another, and so this is kind of the beginning of an effort to do that.”

Benham said that Amtrak only serves a limited number of cities and the proposed Detroit-Grand Rapids corridor could increase the number of Michigan cities connected by rail.

On the eve of Amtrak, the Cheapeake & Ohio operated two roundtrips between Detroit and Grand Rapids via Lansing, but Benham said a number of alternative routing options will be considered.

One route might have the trains pass through Ann Arbor, although he conceded that might be difficult to do because of the lack of connections between the rail lines that the train would need to use.

For several years, Ann Arbor and state transportation officials have eyed establishing commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and between Ann Arbor and Howell.

The Michigan Department of Transportation even acquired former Metra bi-level commuter coaches for the service, which still lacks a funding source.

The cars are being stored in Owosso and the state is making lease payments on them even though they have nowhere to operate.

Of late there have also been discussions about establishing rail passenger service between Ann Arbor and Traverse City with intermediate stops in Cadillac, Mount Pleasant, Alma, Owosso and Howell.

That service would be a continuation of the proposed WALLY commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Howell.

Reinstating Detroit-Grand Rapids rail service has been talked about at times over the past four decades, but the latest efforts began in 2010 when the Michigan by Rail team, made up of the MEC and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, collected public input for Michigan’s State Rail Plan that favored establishment of rail service between Michigan’s east and west coasts.

In the 2011 Michigan State Rail Plan, an alternatives analysis and environmental review were recommended for the Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids corridor.

In 2013, MEC and MDOT came out in favor of studying Detroit-Holland service. The AAATA received a $100,000 grant from MDOT for the study.

AAATA issued a request for proposals in November and received three bids from interested firms. MDOT must approve the study contract with TEMS before it can be signed.

Benham said it’s unlikely the Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids corridor project would involving new tracks.

“All the routes that are being looked at are intended to be routes that already have tracks between the two points,” he said.

AAATA board chairman Charles Griffith describes passenger rail service between Detroit and Grand Rapids as another piece of a larger puzzle.

Although he said he is encouraged that expansion of intercity passenger rail and the establishment of commuter rail have received much attention, there is still much to be done.

“A lot of these things are still in the study phase, so in some ways it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to actually having rail as an option,” he said.

“It hasn’t exactly become clear to me what the pathway is to actually getting the service up and running and securing the funding.”

As for those idle passenger cars, MDOT is considering subleasing them or getting rid of them. Through May 2014, MDOT had spent $9.5 million to lease and refurbish seven cab and 16 coach cars and is still on the hook for another $2.7 million, according to a state audit that concluded MDOT did not effectively oversee the lease. Planned restroom upgrades for some of the cars could cost another $3.7 million.

However, Benham described that spending as an investment.

“We talk about public involvement. The railcars really give us an opportunity to involve the public in a hands-on way,” he said.

“People wonder what is this commuter rail thing. They see the cars, they get on them, they look around, they go, ‘Ah, this is what you’re talking about.’ Most people get pretty excited about that and it becomes more real and less of this abstract project.”

AAATA recently launched an 18-month feasibility study for the proposed WALLY commuter rail line using a $650,000 federal grant. Consulting firm SmithGroup JJR has been hired to oversee that study.



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