Even while the legislature refuses to acknowledge (or ignores) the urgent necessity to invest in road and bridge improvements, Gov. Rick Snyder and state taxpayers are investing in a sharply increased level of interest and funding in public transportation — especially rail.
The federal government is returning some of Michigan’s tax dollars with grants and subsidies for such projects. There is no doubt of the growing rail passenger traffic or of its projected double-digit increases in the next five years. The governor is championing rail lines from Detroit through Lansing and Grand Rapids to Holland (see page 1.) Another rail plan links Detroit/Flint through Jackson to Chicago.
What is missing from that plan is the fact that Grand Rapids has a long affiliation with the Chicago market, and the latter proposed line cuts off Grand Rapids while linking Detroit to Chicago along the old Prohibition Highway. It will have negative economic impact in West Michigan, a problem that must draw attention and action. This includes the Traverse City and Benton Harbor-St. Joseph area where Whirlpool recently invested in a pro golf course and an upscale residential community.
The business community here has strong ties to the Windy City, and Chicago — not Detroit — is the preferred destination for overnight recreational travel. The ports of the Chicago area have long-served to fuel exports and transportation needs for the West Michigan region along Lake Michigan.
Amtrak statistics for the Pere Marquette line linking the two “second cities” show year-after-year increases in passenger traffic. Its new facility at The Rapid Central Station anticipates that growth. While Amtrak is investing in facility upgrades, it is uncertain whether the federally subsidized rail service will increase the number of GR-Chicago service times, currently limited to one well-packed daily run.
Grand Valley State University’s 2009 study found that rail in the city alone had a community benefit of $62 million. Amtrak’s estimates are that its line contributed $31 million in goods and services to Michigan companies. In 2012, Amtrak showed 12 straight months of increasing ridership across the country and set a record as the highest annual ridership since service began in 1971. Ridership has increased 49 percent since 2000. Pere Marquette passenger levels contributed to those gains, with another 2.5 percent increase in 2012, according to Amtrak’s annual report.
The obvious increases across the country include the Miami-Palm Beach areas where new rail line developments are attracting a wide array of investments. According to a report by the Miami Herald last week, investments include condominium/residential towers, hotels, shopping plazas and commercial office developments along the developing rail lines.
Studies indicate ridership increases will continue to be the norm, especially for college-age students. (See the story on Page 1.) That also is the case along the Pere Marquette line for students attending Chicago-area colleges and universities and Notre Dame.
The return of rail-loving riders in unprecedented numbers since the 1970s and business investments along rail lines is evidence of the necessity for Grand Rapids’ leaders to stoke an economic plan of capture.