MI: Rail study proposals sought

Feb. 19, 2024
Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority is asking for bids from rail planning experts interested in an 18-month, $2.3-million deep dive into the Traverse City to Ann Arbor line's business plans, infrastructure needs, where to locate stops along the line and more.

Feb. 15—TRAVERSE CITY — Bringing passenger trains back to Traverse City and other locales on the same rail route would take more than simply firing up a locomotive and heading down the line.

Many of the specifics are unknown, from how much it would cost to upgrade existing tracks between Petoskey and Ann Arbor (with a branch connecting Traverse City) to where the stations should be located, and more, said Carolyn Ulstad, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities' transportation program manager. Those questions are just a few of many the Traverse City-based nonprofit wants answered in a second passenger rail study.

The nonprofit and Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority are partnering on what they're calling the second phase of an earlier study from 2018. Now, the transit authority is asking for bids from rail planning experts interested in an 18-month, $2.3-million deep dive into business plans, infrastructure needs, where to locate stops along the line and more.

Track upgrades in 2022 totaling $42 million brought some of the track, largely owned by the state and run by Great Lakes Central Railroad, into better condition. And the Michigan Department of Transportation will replace an 1888-built bridge over the Manistee River near Walton and the Old U.S. 131 State Forest Campground with $20.4 million in federal and $13 million in state funds, plus $750,000 from Great Lakes Central Railroad.

The replacement bridge will be able to handle 286,000-pound capacity railcars after its estimated 2027 completion, according to MDOT.

But the tracks will need more work, especially to bring them up to standards that would support passenger trains going 60 miles per hour or faster, Ulstad said.

"Absolutely, and that's what we're really curious to find out as well ourselves ... we're really looking forward to getting a consultant on board that can do these technical studies that can really look in detail at every mile of track to give us a really good estimate on what it will cost," she said.

That assessment would be the basis for investment strategies on how to fix the line, Ulstad said.

Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority is also interested in finding out how a passenger train could connect to local transit, or non-motorized means like bikes, authority Executive Director Carrie Thompson said. Cadillac's bus system is just one example, and building a station there could not only help revitalize the downtown but serve as a multimodal hub.

The line passes through a few dozen cities and villages of varying sizes, and Thompson said the study will include efforts to get input from those different locales on what people would want from a passenger rail service.

Michigan isn't the only state where transportation planners are looking to bring back rail, said Nicholas Little, Railway Education Director for Michigan State University's Center For Railway Research and Education.

"Many other parts of the country are considering trains or bringing trains back to places they used to serve," he said. "It's hard to do in this country compared to other parts of the world, because everybody is so ingrained in the use of automobiles that they don't think of other options."

Little said he didn't know the details of efforts behind the Traverse City to Ann Arbor passenger train, but from the outset he saw a few challenges. One is that vacationers coming south to north might struggle to bring everything on a train, prompting them to drive instead.

Another is the disparity in size between southwest Michigan on one end and the much more lightly populated regions on the other end.

Whether there would be enough passenger traffic to justify a train service would be an issue.

Routes like that usually work best if riders make lots of intermediate trips — from Cadillac to Mount Pleasant, say — in addition to end-to-end runs, Little said. So the locations of stops on the route have to be carefully considered, as well as the speed and frequency of the trains.

"What I would say is if I were to look at using a passenger train from metro Detroit to Traverse City, I'd want to make sure that it was faster, or at least not any slower, than taking a car," he said.

Both Ulstad and Thompson agreed that speed would be a must to attract passengers, with Thompson adding a train ride should be at least as fast and more convenient than driving.

While the study would be primarily focused on passenger trains, any rail improvements would be a boon to shippers along the line, Thompson said.

That's especially true in Cadillac where several manufacturers already move their products out by train.

There's interest in Kalkaska as well, since it's well-served by a handful of highways, making it a good spot for intermodal shipping, Ulstad said.

Benefits to private industry open up the possibility for private investments in rail upgrades, she added.

Whether a passenger train linking Traverse City to points south is feasible or not remains to be seen, Little said. Michigan already has three Amtrak routes — including one through East Lansing — and he figured much of the state's passenger rail funding will continue to go to those lines. That's a better business proposition, since they already have solid ridership that investments in service could grow.

"Certainly if someone is willing to find out the right information, and if it does prove feasible, it's something I'd really like to see happen," he said of a potential Traverse City route. "But I'd really like to see it done properly, because the worst thing would be to build it and then nobody comes, because any investment from the state and other public money would be wasted."

Thompson said that's why the state requires such studies before the project could move any farther down the line.

"So it's really important that we bring these two grants together to really give this a shot to move forward, because I really think that there is great potential in having that north-south train service across the state," she said.

Proposals are due March 25, with a contract potentially in place in early May, according to the request.

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