Passenger rail service between Ann Arbor and the Traverse City area is one step closer to reality based on early findings of a six-month feasibility study scheduled to wrap up in June.
Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, an advocacy group based in Traverse City, is leading the initiative to bring back regular passenger train service between southeast and northwest Michigan, with a goal of having it operational by 2025. Groundwork partnered with the Bay Area Transit Authority to apply for federal funds and announced that a grant was secured in early 2017.
Groundwork deputy director Jim Bruckbauer says his organization is looking at this particular route because the tracks are already in place for freight service, the state owns the tracks, and they're "still in pretty good shape."
A feasibility study for the service is being conducted by consultant firm Transportation Economics and Management Systems. Bruckbauer says the study looked at existing public input data from 2012, when the state of Michigan created a statewide trail plan, as well as at existing track conditions and travel patterns in the communities between Ann Arbor and Traverse City.
Early findings about how many people would likely use the passenger rail service are encouraging, particularly the fact that visits to the Traverse City region have been growing 4 percent per year.
"So now Traverse City and Petoskey are saying, 'Can we get a percentage of these visitors to come up by train?' The consultants are saying that, based on initial findings, there's a good case for that," Bruckbauer says.
He notes that passenger rail service would likely be rolled out in stages. The first stage would likely have special event trains taking passengers north for the National Cherry Festival, the Traverse City Film Festival, or a fall color tour, as well as taking Traverse City-area residents downstate for major events like the Ann Arbor Art Fair.
Bruckbauer says those special-event runs would allow organizers to test the market to see how many people are willing to travel the route by train.
"Then you can start building the service as demand and interest increases," he says.
Consultants are also looking at what it would take to get trains running at 60 mph along that corridor with the goal of making a five-hour trip from Ann Arbor to Traverse. Next, they'll look into what it would take to get trains going more than 100 mph, decreasing travel time even more.
A likely next step after completing the feasibility study would be deciding on the best operating structure, whether that would entail having a nonprofit or for-profit company operating the trains.
Bruckbauer says some of the money for the feasibility study came from a federal grant, but funding also came from Rotary Charities of Traverse City, the National Association of Realtors, and Traverse City-area real estate organizations.
"It's interesting to see the private-sector real estate community coming together around this idea," Bruckbauer says. "They see what rail does for the economy, for development and real estate values, when a rail goes through communities."
Though the feasibility study isn't finished yet, Bruckbauer says it's already "pretty clear that it is going to take an incremental approach to building long-term service."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in southeast Michigan. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images courtesy of Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.