Rail service from Detroit to West Michigan? Now’s your chance to give input

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Imagine being able to catch a train ride from Grand Rapids to Detroit to watch a Tigers baseball game for the evening, or take a train from Lansing to Holland to spend a weekend at the beach?

These are some of the ideas the Michigan By Rail campaign is hoping will sell the public on a proposal to build a 'coast-to-coast' rail line connecting Detroit to Holland, with stops at some of the state's largest population hubs in between.

“There is a renewed excitement about rail in Michigan," said Liz Treutel, project manager for Michigan By Rail and policy associate with the Michigan Environmental Council.

Between 2002 and 2013, ridership on current Amtrak lines in Michigan have increased by 78 percent, according to Treutel.

"That number is staying steady since 2013, so we’re seeing this ridership stay quite high and I think’s a combination of a shift in cultural activities around transportation and people also just wanting more and better options to get around," she said.

Young people are a big part of that, with the most popular stops in Michigan currently in East Lansing and Ann Arbor, both homes to universities.

"We know that college students take the train a lot, so that is a big demographic we’re looking at," Treutel said.

Monday night, the public was invited to an open meeting to provide input on the project. The Michigan Environmental Council has scheduled a meeting from 6-7:30 p.m. Monday at the Rapid Central Station in Grand Rapids.

It's the first of what will be several more scheduled across the state in the next year. Round 2 and 3 meetings will be scheduled in July and September with specific times and places to be announced at a later date.

Treutel said meetings this summer will take place in Holland and on Grand Valley State University's campus.

coast_to_coast_mockup_2

Courtesy: Michigan By Rail campaign

Initial plans for the rail line could include up to three routes for service with stops in Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Holland. The majority of the routes would run on existing tracks now owned by the CSX railway.

Possible stops would include Detroit, Beck, South Lyon, Howell, Williamston, East Lansing, Lansing, Grand Ledge, Lake Odessa, Kentwood/GRR Airport, Grand Rapids, Hudsonville and Holland.

Two other lines could possibly run from Detroit through Ann Arbor and Howell, respectively. All three routes would connect Grand Rapids' airport with the Detroit Metro Airport in Wayne County.

Treutel said an existing line between Holland and Muskegon county eventually could be added to the route in the future, if there was enough demand.

This would be the first time since the 1970s that rail service was available between Michigan's three largest population regions: Metro Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids.

The rail line could prove to be an economic win for the state as well, project managers argue.  According to the Michigan By Rail website, current rail service on the Wolverine Corridor brings more than $45 million in 'community benefits' to towns along the route annually.

“We know it increases property values, we know it helps attract and retain talent," Treutel said. "Among the top three things Millennials look at when they relocate to a community is the transportation options.”

Grand Rapids and East Lansing have begun the process of relocating their train stations into alignment with the route, according to Michigan By Rail.

Currently, through the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and the Michigan Department of Transportation, MDOT, Michigan By Rail has secured federal grants to complete ridership assessments for the corridor connecting Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Holland.

The study costs $100,000 with $80,000 being paid for through the federal grants. The remaining funds came from local governments.

Final funding plans have yest to be determined but Treutel said the goal is for an almost entirely self-sustaining model where rider fares will cover the majority of the costs to keep the system maintained and running.

“It seems like this is going more toward a mid-step," said Ken Miguel-Cipriano, who expressed concern the line would be using existing freight rails and not dedicated passenger rails. "We’re not talking about a passenger-only rail, personally, I’d rather wait for it to be done right than have some mid-step and have to put in more money again."

Speed was also a concern, with some at Monday's meeting wondering whether the trains would be able to compete with the highway.

“If I can’t get from Grand Rapids to Detroit any faster in a train than I can in my car, I may well take my car," said David Clemo who overall said he liked the idea of a coast-to-coast rail line.

Project planners said creating dedicated high-speed rail lines would be too costly, given stricter regulations and the need to create entirely new infrastructure.

Once the feasibility study is competed this fall, engineering and design can begin with a goal to start construction by 2020. Limited or full service trains could be up an running by 2022 or 2024.

Freshwater Transit has provided this mock up to give an idea of what the routes and timetables could look like. Final train schedules, frequency of stops and fare costs will be determined once the feasibility study is completed.

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