Groups pushing for better rail service in metro area

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Groups pushing for better rail service in metro area

http://www.pressandguide.com/articles/2010/09/17/news/doc4c93b382e2b88528261664.txt

Friday, September 17, 2010

By Sean Delaney, Press & Guide Newspapers

DEARBORN — Mayor Jack O’Reilly and other city officials took part in a public forum on Michigan’s passenger rail transportation future Wednesday on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus.

“I’ve been in and out of issues with transit since 1980 when I was working with the Senate Transportation Committee,” O’Reilly said. “We’ve had a lot of false starts, but no real progress in any kinds of mass transit and there’s got to be a starting point. If we can get the momentum going, we can begin to explore this.”

Recent federal support has put Michigan in a great position to build a modern rail transit system that is clean, fast and convenient, according to John Langdon of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.

“We want residents to shape that vision and discuss how best to meet big challenges like funding for such a rail network,” Langdon said.

Wednesday’s forum was part of a series of 16 taking place throughout the state to engage citizens on a vision for the future and forward the ideas to state and federal policymakers.

“The Michigan Department of Transportation is required to perform a state rail plan and submit it to the federal railroad administration in order to receive federal money in the future for the rail system,” said Tim Fischer, deputy policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council. “ They’re in the process of taking input from Michigan citizens.”

Each forum includes an overview of the existing rail system, an interactive rail mapping session, discussion of financing options and a big picture vision for a modern Michigan high-speed rail system.

“This is really a way to begin the discussion of what we want to see in Michigan’s passenger and to some extent the freight rail system,” Fischer said.

According to Landon, similar forums have drawn hundreds of residents and civic leaders in venues including Royal Oak, East Lansing, Battle Creek, Traverse City, New Buffalo, St. Joseph and Jackson.

Others are planned for cities including Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Flint, Monroe, and Ann Arbor.

“This is really something we’re way behind in, and if we miss this opportunity it may have a terrible impact because the reality is the demand for petroleum based products worldwide is going to continue to expand,” O’Reilly said. “It’s a limited resource. If we don’t really explore alternatives to that, then there may be a time when we’re going to find we’re going to lose the opportunity to move forward economically.”

Officials have said rail transit would help reduce congestion in Southeast Michigan, improve road quality and the daily commute for constituents, and assist communities with economic development, employer recruitment and livability.

But just how Michigan will be able to afford expanded rail service is still a mystery. Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said in June the state would likely have to raise taxes.

A modest increase in the gas and vehicle registration tax, SEMCOG argues, could raise more than $1 billion annually for road and transit projects in Michigan, and $100 million of that could go to projects like the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit rail line.

The line includes a stop in Dearborn — where plans to build a new intermodal rail station continue to move forward. The new station will be about 20,000 square feet and located at Michigan Avenue and Elm (east of Brady, west of the Southfield Freeway), placing it within walking distance of Greenfield Village and the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus.

“This site was selected for the new station because it’s the nexus point for being able to get off the train, cross a bridge and end up on the Henry Ford campus or walk to our West Downtown district,” said Barry Murray, director of Dearborn Economic and Community Development Department.

“We’re also looking at building a bridge across Michigan Avenue as part of this project, which would give us a direct link to about 27,000 students on our two campuses. People don’t usually think of Dearborn as a college town, but when you put it in that context we have as many if not more students than traditional college towns in the area. A lot of our students are commuters, but UM-D is looking at adding student housing as part of their growth plan.”

Mayor O’Reilly said he believes investing in state-of-the-art passenger rail is essential to the future of Dearborn, Metro Detroit and Michigan.

“The thing I think should be most compelling to us is the one community that lagged behind Detroit for years was the Los Angeles area,” he said. “I was out there this summer and I rode their rail. They are ahead of us now in terms of transit development, which is quite shocking if you think of the history of Los Angeles.

“What’s really extraordinary is they’re driving It downtown. Los Angeles didn’t really have a downtown before, but now they have a more vital downtown in this economy than they’ve ever had in their past. They’re driving energy and investment into their downtown with transit.”

Murray said he thinks Dearborn could do the same with its intermodal rail station.

“What we see spinning off from this is transit oriented development (the idea that people want to be around transit stations and actually want to base their life in that area) so you see an increased demand for housing, commercial development and institutional development,” he said.

The proposed intermodal station is being paid for through a $40 million grant from the $8 billion in high-speed rail money that was made available through the Obama administration.

“We hope to receive our grant by the end of the year and we have 24 months from the day the federal railroad administration gives that grant to MDOT to finish the project,” Murray said.

For more on this story, see future editions of the Press & Guide.

Contact Staff Writer Sean Delaney at (734) 246-2702 or sdelaney@heritage.com.

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