Posted to MichiganNow.org on Monday, November 1, 2010
Click here for an audio story about High-Speed Rail in Michigan
INTRO: The federal government is giving Michigan $161 million for high speed passenger rail. The announcement came in the midst of heated congressional elections. The money is NOT for the Ann Arbor commuter train nor the Woodward Light Rail line. This is a different project. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus considers whether trains are a necessity or just projects politicians use to get elected.
The money will be used to buy the decrepit tracks from Kalamazoo to Dearborn and make improvements in Detroit. Freight trains have run fine at 40 miles per hour. Amtrak has been ok at 75. But now the tracks will be improved enough for Amtrak to hit 110 all the way to Chicago.
Says Deputy US Secretary of Transportation John Porcari:
“If you look around the world it has brought cities back to life. It has brought industries back to towns and it’s a way that all of Michigan can be tied into a larger system that serves everybody.”
Both Congressmen Mark Schauer and John Dingell called news conferences about the $161 million. Both are in tight re-election races. The timing of their bringing home the bacon is suspicious. But transit advocates say both men have been trying to get high speed rail for years.
Secretary John Porcari came to back them up. He spoke at the Jackson station. It’s 137 years old.
“I need to thank the people of Jackson who over the years have had the great good sense to preserve this jewel of a station. Give yourselves a round of applause.”
The federal money is coming from the regular transportation budget, not from the stimulus package. So it’s not considered money borrowed from the next generation but money already paid for through taxes. Says Porcari:
“It’s a way large numbers of people can be moved in a very efficient way. America is going to have 70 million more citizens 30 years from now. 30 years is tomorrow morning in transportation planning terms. We need to make sure that we’re accommodating all those needs.”
Even without the whole line to Chicago up to speed, Northwestern University student Emily Leitsch prefers Amtrak when visiting friends in Ann Arbor.
“It’s cheaper than paying for gas and less stressful. I have to drive from Chicago if I come here and that’s not really a fun drive. And I can do my homework on the train.”
Further east on the line, was Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly.
“We’re not going to eradicate cars by building transit. But we will now have a new station that’s access to Henry Ford and Greenfield Village. And that means that all the 1.8 million travelers to the village will be able to use the train and use it effectively. And that’s the beginning of commuter rail in our area which is critical. We’re one of the last major places. I was just out in Los Angeles visiting my son. They’re going gangbusters on transit. If they can do it in LA why can’t we do it in Southeast Michigan.”
“The infrastructure is failing. The roads are failing. We use the roads every day today. And bridges are failing. We need something like $9 billion just in SE Michigan to repair existing problems.”
Kim Priebe was the mayor of Taylor. He’s now Wayne County’s Director of Roads. On the same day as the politicians railroad tour, Priebe took part in a forum organized by the Michigan Environmental Council and the Association of Railroad Passengers.
“My question is how can we do the things that need to be done today and attempt to do this thing that ought to be done in the long run. We have to have a priority and all of these things can’t be a priority.”
Nearly all 30 people in the room were pro transit except Priebe. Ed Clemente is a term-limited state representative from Lincoln Park. Clemente says Michiganders will have to get used to taking more transit because it’s cheaper.
“I think our solution is not a viable solution because our solution is to keep throwing money at roads when we should never have built them. This is more of a land use issue than a transit issue. We built way too many subdivisions in places that we can’t ever afford to put roads or infrastructure.”
But county roads chief Kim Priebe was not convinced. He asked if the new rail project will pay for itself. Forum organizers pointed out that no transit system pays for itself and roads can be even worse. Woodward Ave, they said costs almost $800,000 a year per mile to maintain.
Actually, the $161 million is closer to $160.2 million and involves zero dollars for high speed. The bulk of the money is to buy tracks between Dearborn and Kalamazoo and rehabilitate it to 79 mph. Big improvement over the current 75 mph passenger speed. Definitely not high speed.