High-speed and light rail transit: If you build it, will they come?

Monica Scott: mscott@grpress.com
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Tom Pearce.JPG
Tom Pearce

GRAND RAPIDS — Will Cronin says anyone who has ever taken a train from one city to another recognizes the convenience and value of passenger rail.

“We have got to get people off the expressways,” the Grand Rapids man told a group gathered Thursday to discuss the future of the state’s rail system. “We can’t keep adding lanes. Do we want to live in traffic all day or do we want an alternative?

The discussion, coordinated by the Michigan Environmental Council, drew about 30 people to The Rapid Central Station. Comments will be forwarded to the state Department of Transportation to include in its rail plan, which is required for federal funding eligibility.

If you build it, will they come? That, said state Rep. Tom Pearce, R-Rockford, is the question about light and high-speed rail in Michigan.

“As you look at any mass transit, the biggest question is how do we get the best value for each dollar we spend?” Pearce said.

Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, said hopping a train to Lansing or Detroit will become a reality when the state’s economy is healthy and if demand is there.

“A new and vibrant economy will occur when we fix our tax structure and terrible regulatory structure and can attract business,” Agema said. “Money is the issue.”

The state has applied for multiple federal grants to improve and modernize rail service.

Nicholas Wikar, president of Grand Rapids Community College’s Student Congress, said he is optimistic about the future of passenger rail in the state because it’s the logical next step.

“It’s far too costly to maintain the transportation structure we have,” Wikar said. “This is definitely overdue.”

Attendees were divided into six groups, given maps and told to place dots where they lived, places they considered important to the state and where they’d like to travel. Each table discussed their maps.

“It’s ludicrous I can’t catch a train to Detroit,” Cronin said.

Common themes included rail lines connecting Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit and its airport. Rail service up north to Traverse City also was discussed.

“Let’s put ourselves in the position of our grandchildren looking back,” said David Boerema, of Hastings, co-owner of Michigan Rail & Storage. “Our infrastructure is aging. We are already late on this.”

Boerema spoke of the need for freight and passenger rail to complement one another instead of creating conflict.

The forum was the 12th of 16 planned across the state by the council and its 70 partners. MDOT held its own earlier this year.

E-mail Monica Scott: mscott@grpress.com

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