State rail plan could bring passenger service to Traverse City from southern Michigan

Anyone who's ever made the drive from southeast Michigan to Traverse City in the northwest region of the state's Lower Peninsula would agree there's got be a better way to get there than hours spent sitting in a car.

Fortunately, the state government has made rail issues a higher priority in recent years and has shown a willingness to invest in the state's infrastructure. However, before any project linking T.C. to other regions with increased rail traffic comes to fruition, decision-makers need to gather as much information as they can.

To that extent, the Michigan Department of Transportation made plans to allocate $150,000 earlier this year to study whether it made sense to invest in repairing a rail line connecting T.C. to southeast Michigan. The state already owns the right-of-way to a rail corridor run by Great Lakes Central from Traverse City through Cadillac and Mount Pleasant that eventually connects to rail systems near Saginaw and Flint. Rather than try to start a project from scratch later, it may be cheaper and easier to repair the existing line now.

Rail proponents say improved rail use of that corridor could have a positive effect not just to the Traverse City or Petoskey areas, but also to the smaller communities along the line and even the state's manufacturing base in the metropolitan Detroit area.

"If you look at other areas of the country that have already put some of these transportation systems into play, they're some of the ones recovering the fastest and some of the ones that are going to thrive the best," says Kim Pontius, Traverse Area Association of Realtors Executive Vice President. "Transportation is the key to everything."

It's too early to say exactly what cities would be serviced. One popular thought is that Howell or Ann Arbor could be connected to Traverse City using the existing rails, but the process is too early for concrete answers.

What is clear, however, is the public's interest in connecting northwest lower Michigan with more populated regions of the state. MDOT held 16 meetings in several locations in 2010 and another six in 2011 to receive public comment while creating the state's rail plan. In fact, proposals during these meetings often focused on connecting either Grand Rapids or Detroit to Traverse City.

"The residents of Michigan are starting to get a firm understanding that in order to improve our economic competitiveness, we have to make investments in transportation," says James Bruckbauer, a transportation expert at the Michigan Land Use Institute. "We have a long history in making investments in transportation, and the more that we can keep up with some regions of the world where they are investing in passenger and freight rail, the better position Michigan will be in."

It will be years before any regular passenger service could occur to Traverse City, but using existing GLC tracks for increased freight transportation could begin a lot sooner. In fact, the rail is already in use, says Doug DeYoung, vice president of government relations and business advocacy for the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce. However, due to the aging rail bed and tracks, speed limits are lower and loads have to be watched closely.

"There's no doubt the use of rail in northern Michigan has declined over the years, but we also know there's a lot of businesses that use rail by connecting with a different community," DeYoung says. "One company connects in Clare and stores products on rail cars in Clare and trucks to Traverse City when needed. Other companies in the fruit industry load trucks and take them to Chicago. We know that there are companies that use rail. What we want to know is how many of them are there and where are they connecting now, and could we create a connection point here?"

Companies that deal in agricultural products could be key users of the rail. The Grand Traverse region is well-known for cherries, but also serves as home to number of other orchard products. There would also be opportunities to move more lumber products, as well. The State Rail Plan 2011 reports commodities hauled along GLC's tracks include "sand, grain, plastics, coke, fertilizers, lumber and other chemicals."

The ultimate goal would be to improve track conditions enough that freight and passenger service could be shared at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Giving people an easier way to reach T.C. could help bolster an already-strong tourist destination and create new opportunities for communities along the rail. That could be at least five years away. However, Pontius is happy with the direction the state has gone in recent years.

"We just have to look far enough out and ask if this is worth the expenditure and is there a smarter way to go?" Pontius says. "That's what we're about here. We're looking at it going, viable rail systems in the state, especially since we already own the corridors and the right-of-ways just make sense."

If the state's feasibility study agrees, the dreams of relaxing while watching out the window as Michigan scenery goes by could someday become a reality.

Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Marquette. His baseball columns appear every Tuesday in the Detroit News. His website is located at KurtMensching.info
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