Michigan By Rail forum stops in B.C.
Justin A. Hinkley • The Enquirer • July 16, 2010
A traveling forum to discuss the future of Michigan’s railways made a stop in Battle Creek on Thursday.
The Michigan Environmental Council and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers held a Michigan by Rail forum at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Fifteen people from across the region participated in a talk about what they’d like to see from extended passenger train lines and about how a high-speed inter-city railway might be funded.
Fourteen forums across the state are scheduled through the end of the year, meant to gather public input that will later be shared with state lawmakers and the Michigan Department of Transportation, said Tim Fischer, deputy policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council.
The talks are meant to spur local conversations before MDOT begins similar forums this fall, Fischer said. MDOT is charged with developing a state railway plan required by a 2008 federal law for the state to receive any federal rail money, according to michiganbyrail.org.
“Before we even get to pulling out the wallet, we’re trying to look at, what do we want to buy,” Fischer told the audience.
Michigan’s current passenger train system runs on three main lines, according to Michigan by Rail: the Pere Marquette, which connects Chicago to Holland and Grand Rapids; the Blue Water, which connects Chicago to Port Huron with stops in East Lansing and Flint; and the Wolverine, which connects Chicago to Pontiac by way of Ann Arbor and Detroit.
It’s a system with too few trains and not enough options to make train travel easier than highways, participants said.
“What you need is more frequency so you can make that trip work,” said Eaton Rapids’ David Fernald, a former passenger train engineer. “You need more trains and you need more stops.”
In discussions Thursday, participants envisioned lines that connected Lansing to Detroit and Grand Rapids to Lansing. They talked about other runs to places such as Traverse City and Sault Ste. Marie, with connections into Canada through Windsor and southeastern Ontario. They discussed funding the dream through special tax zones, a statewide sales tax change or public-private mergers on railways.
Participants saw funding as a major obstacle and wondered how many people would actually choose a scheduled train over the independence of driving. However, an improved railroad system, participants said, could spark economic development by easing connections between the state’s biggest cities.
“We face some real problems with traffic congestion, gas prices and environmental concerns,” said Kay Chase, a railroad passenger association member from Kalamazoo. “When you provide trains as an option, you start to eliminate some of those.”
The next forum is Thursday in Traverse City. The next local forum scheduled is Nov. 17 in Kalamazoo.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 966-0698 or firstname.lastname@example.org.