Published: Thursday, August 26, 2010, 11:35 PM Updated: Thursday, August 26, 2010, 11:37 PM
Imagine if Michigan’s major cities were connected by faster trains, and rail service was restored to Toledo, Ohio, and from there to the East Coast.
About 70 people, including several public officials, imagined such a scenario at the Michigan By Rail Public Forum on Thursday at the Michigan Theatre.
The purpose of the forum, one of a series across the state by Michigan Environmental Council and Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, was to get input on what the state’s rail system should look like.
Participants were given a map of the state and asked to put dots on the cities that should be served. Most maps included Lansing, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Port Huron, Traverse City and Mackinaw City.
Brian Karhoff, lead station agent at the Jackson Amtrak Station, went off the Michigan map. Karhoff said people ask him all the time how they can get to New York City or Washington, D.C., and he tells them there used to be a train to Toledo that would connect them, but now they either have to drive or take a bus to Toledo or go back to Chicago to take the train.
“We need a direct rail down to Toledo,” Karhoff said. “The people will come if they know it’s there and it’s there on a regular basis.”
Tom Grace, a member of Jackson Citizens for Economic Growth, which has been pushing for a high-speed rail line between Chicago and Detroit, said cities where colleges are located should also be on the map because more students are taking the train due to high gas prices and traffic congestion.
U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek; state Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek; and representatives of U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow attended the forum.
Schauer has been lobbying for Jackson to be a stop on the proposed high-speed rail line and an extension of a commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit. Schauer said it will be harder for Jackson to draw people and businesses if it is not part of the lines.
“This is an important dynamic of the community,” Schauer said. “To me it’s an issue of competitiveness.”
In January, the Department of Transportation announced that the Chicago-to-Detroit corridor would receive $244 million in federal stimulus funds but Michigan only got $40 million to renovate stations in Battle Creek and Troy and build a new station in Dearborn.
Schauer and Nofs both said they didn’t come to the forum to knock cars but said trains give people who can’t afford cars another transportation option.
Timothy Fischer, deputy policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, said the input given at the forum will be presented to the next governor and the state legislature. Fischer also urged the participants to contact their representatives themselves.
“These are all basically political decisions,” Fischer said.