The new Vernon J. Ehlers Amtrak station in Grand Rapids is set to open later this year. Photo courtesy Jessica Knedgen
Reconnecting Holland, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit via passenger rail might become more than wishful thinking.
The state budget, recently signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, has cleared the way for a ridership study, which is expected to occur later this year.
Dan Sommerville, policy associate with the Michigan Environmental Council and member of the Michigan By Rail team, said the line item in the transportation budget allows MDOT the freedom to fund the study from any pot of funding it chooses.
A grant application has been filed with the Service Development and New Technology program for $100,000 to fund the study. The program is a federal grant program facilitated by MDOT.
Sommerville expects the grant will be awarded in August. At that time MDOT will contract with a company to conduct the study. The study is expected to take six months.
“In the state budget it was directed that MDOT provide a report to the legislature by May 2015,” Sommerville said. “We do expect to have something to report to them by then.”
At this time the study is limited to ridership demand, but a larger alternative analysis and environmental impact study are also called for if the ridership study finds that demand supports the re-establishment of a passenger rail line along the corridor.
The cost of an alternative analysis and environmental impact study is in the ballpark of $700,000 to $1 million, according to Sommerville.
“(The ridership study) is a much lower-cost study, but it’s going to give us the main piece of whether or not to proceed with the rest of the planning process,” he said.
Sommerville said ridership demand would be determined by looking at a number of factors, including traffic patterns along I-96, which is the main route currently taken when traveling through the corridor. It would also look at population densities, employment concentration, and people’s origin and destination patterns along the corridor.
“We’ve got a number of statistics and data that shows the ridership demand is there, but essentially what this study does is looks at the ridership demand — what is the real demand for passenger rail service in this corridor,” Sommerville said.
He said the last study conducted along the corridor was in 2002, but it only looked at the Lansing to Detroit section of the corridor.
“Since 2002, when that last report came out from Detroit to Lansing, there has been a 78 percent increase in rail ridership just here in Michigan,” he said.
Data has shown an increase in passenger rail ridership nationally, with several record years of ridership growth.
Another factor expected to support ridership demand has to do with college students in Michigan.
Sommerville said more than a dozen colleges and universities sit within walking distance of corridor rail stations.
“U of M put out a study that looked at what are the different kinds of riders that we have here in Michigan,” he said. “They broke down who was riding the train, and found that more than 20 percent of Michigan riders are students. That is a considerable source of demand right there.”
Student demand accounts for a big and important piece because it’s not just about rail line demand; it’s about Michigan’s future talent pool.
Michigan is trying to attract young workers, and studies have shown young workers want a variety of public transportation options. Sommerville said passenger rail is one of the pieces of infrastructure Michigan needs to invest in to keep young workers from leaving the state.
Economic impact is another factor pointing to the benefit of passenger rail along the corridor.
Sommerville said Grand Valley State University conducted a study in 2009 looking at the annual community benefit of having a rail station in a city. The study found $62 million in annual community benefits that are attributable to having a train station in town.
The study looked at the cost savings to passengers of taking rail over driving or flying, the spending of a rail passenger on retail, restaurants and hotels, and Amtrak’s annual investment in Michigan.
“Amtrak, in 2013, invested over $31 million in goods and services from Michigan companies,” Sommerville said. “That is a sizeable amount of investment that is coming from having rail service in Michigan.”
He could not estimate the cost of getting passenger rail between Holland and Detroit up and running again, but said much of the infrastructure is already in place.
“One of the big benefits of this corridor is that the rail line is already there,” he said. “CSX currently owns and operates the railroad between Detroit and Holland. Upgrading tracks to run trains at a higher speed is much less costly than getting new land and laying new tracks. Essentially, the cost we are looking at here is upgrading the current rails and procuring new train cars.”
Passenger rail between Holland and Detroit ceased in 1971, when Amtrak was undertaking a series of consolidations.