(As seen on WZZM TV 13) A commuter train service could be in West Michigan’s future.
A recent study showed a large number of workers commute along I-196 between Grand Rapids and Holland, and a team of stakeholders is determining the best way to improve commutes and draw talent to the region.
The city of Hudsonville, last year, contracted Mp2planning, a consulting firm out of Muncie, Indiana, to gather information on whether such a commuter service — loosely dubbed the West Michigan Express — would be feasible. The study was published in February.
The stretch of I-196, known as the Chicago Drive corridor, that connects Holland to Grand Rapids also runs directly through Zeeland, Hudsonville and Grandville.
Other communities in the corridor that could benefit from a commuter service include Georgetown Township and Wyoming.
The feasibility study showed 14.8 percent of workers in the Holland/Zeeland area commute to Grand Rapids, along with 28.8 percent of workers in the Georgetown Township area, which includes Hudsonville.
Patrick Waterman, manager for the city of Hudsonville, said any kind of commuter service along the highway would be a major talent attractor for the region.
“What we’re hearing among employers is transportation to work is a major barrier,” Waterman said. “Employers are asking, as part of the interview process, ‘Do you have a means of getting to and from work now?’”
The feasibility study identified several factors indicating either a bus or rail system should be considered for the corridor, including:
A strong interest from both public and private entities
A level of growth in the region and corridor leading to the level of trip activity that would justify commuter service
Large employers in the region wishing to attract workers through both transportation and non-transportation-based commodities
Adequate funding may exist through public-private partnerships
The Michigan Department of Transportation is willing to support planning efforts for the project and may be willing to support a pilot project
CSX operates more tracks that are shared with passenger rails than any other carrier in the U.S. and is willing to discuss the possibility of a commuter rail in the Chicago Drive corridor
Waterman said there are well over 20 partner organizations on the project that represent local and state government, nonprofits and private companies.
Other stakeholders included representatives from the Grand Valley Metro Council, the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council, the city of Holland, the city of Zeeland, the city of Grandville, the city of Grand Rapids, The Rapid, MDOT and The Right Place.
Although it’s still uncertain what an express service along Chicago Drive would look like, Waterman said the CSX-owned spur of track along the corridor is a major area of interest. Currently, only five or six cars use the rail.
“Bus is still an option, but rail is kind of our ultimate goal,” Waterman said. “We understand there’s capacity on those tracks to handle much more traffic. The problem is if you have dedicated communter service, you have to invest in safety improvements.”
According to the feasibility study, the cost of improvements to the Chicago Drive rail could range from $8 million to $28 million depending on the level of investment, on top of $1.5 million to $4 million in annual operating costs and $75,000 in administrative fees.
Comparatively, a commuter bus service would cost much less, with $420,000 for three buses, $50,000 for stop improvements, $491,775 in annual operating fees and $37,500 in annual administrative fees.
The study argued bus service had other favorable attributes like flexibility and speedy implementation but also noted a hypothetical rail service could spur community development, particularly development around train stations.
Implementing the track also could reduce traffic congestion along I-196. Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing and communications for The Right Place, said he would prefer the rail be utilized as a permanent solution.
“Almost 27,000-28,000 people commute between there every day,” Mroz said. “Bottom line, you will never have enough lane miles to solve the commuter congestion problem. The only way is to take it off the road.”
Waterman added ownership of the track still is an issue that must be addressed but added MDOT has been in the business of purchasing large lengths of track from the state and may be able to leverage its influence in the case of the Chicago Drive track.
Having determined that an express commuter service is at least feasible, the next challenge for West Michigan Express partners is to gauge the level of ridership they should expect.
The West Michigan Regional Prosperity Initiative recently awarded the project a grant of $25,000 to help answer this question. Waterman said the money would be used to conduct a survey of as many of the major employers along the Chicago Drive line as possible.
The survey is expected to begin within the next month and will be conducted by Hope College’s Frost Research Center. Waterman expected survey results by January.
He also indicated the West Michigan Express could serve as a pilot for other express services along spurs of track going south toward Gerald R. Ford International Airport and east toward Lowell.