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Wednesday, November 2,2011

All aboard

Michigan Rail Summit throws diverse parties into transports of joy

by Lawrence Cosentino

Judging by the upbeat toots and chugs heard at Monday afternoon’s Michigan Rail Summit in Lansing, there’s one toy that inspires Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and business leaders, Feds and locals and all the other boys and girls to play nicely together: a train.


Every speaker at the Lansing Convention Center, from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to federal transportation officials to the state Chamber of Commerce, mayors, legislators and the summit’s co-sponsor, the Michigan Environmental Council, gushed over renewed prospects for improved passenger and freight train service in Michigan.


“Rail is critically important,” Snyder said.


“This is huge,” Michigan Environmental Council president Chris Kolb enthused.


“This is one of those issues where we can all come together,” Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley proclaimed.


The prospect of a new era for rail travel in Michigan, stoked mainly by federal dollars, had frequent political opponents borrowing each other’s talking points. Snyder talked up the “better sustainability and urban lifestyle” rails would bring to the state, while Kolb predicted that new and better railways would help “rebuild Michigan’s economy.”


“When other governors were turning down help from Washington, he said we’ll take all we can get,” Kolb said of Snyder.


Snyder got an extra wet valentine from Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje. “This is probably the greatest opportunity for the expansion of rail in our state in 100 years,” Hieftje said. “I was inspired to hear the governor. He’s got to stop taking our best people to Lansing. I like what he’s doing with transportation.”


Snyder urged the assembled legislators, local officials and entrepreneurs to drop the peninsular thinking that puts Michigan on the nation’s margins.


Instead, he asked them to imagine a map of North America. “Draw a circle that starts at Montreal and goes down to Chicago and you’ll find that Detroit is right in the heart of that,” he said. “A third of the economy of North America is in that circle.”


Snyder said the east-west corridor from Detroit to Chicago was “top priority,” but also called for better freight yards in Detroit and improved rail tunnels to Canada. He urged a rail connection with Metro Airport and called for “customs questions” to be smoothed out so passenger rail could go “seamlessly” from the American Midwest into Canada.


Snyder also encouraged the assembly to consider commuter rail options in southeastern Michigan.


The buzz at the Lansing summit was generated in part by a dramatic rise in passengers and revenue on Michigan’s railways. 


“Last year in Michigan, Amtrak took 800,000, the most ever, and expects a million next year,” Kolb said.


John Porcari, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, took the opportunity to talk up President Obama’s American Jobs Act, up for a vote in the U.S. Senate this week. Porcari said the bill would create an “immediate investment of $50 billion in the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure,” including extensive work on roads, rails and airports, “of which Michigan will get a significant share.”


Porcari laid out the Obama administration’s three-tiered plan to connect 80 percent of the American people to high-speed rail in 25 years: first, a core network of high-speed, European-style lines reaching 220 miles an hour or faster in California, the Northeast and Midwest corridors and wherever it “makes sense;” a second tier of “regional service as fast or faster than the fastest trains we have today;” and a third tier of local “emerging corridors.”


“This is exactly the blueprint we followed when building the interstate highway system,” Porcari said. “Without knowing where every last bit of money was going to come from, President Eisenhower set a goal, and through 10 administrations and 28 sessions of Congress, we got it done.”


Porcari admitted that the St. Louis-Chicago-Detroit corridor has had “severely degraded service” in recent years, but said that would soon change. “It’s long past time to turn it around,” he said.


With the aid of federal stimulus dollars, new locomotives, coaches and stations will serve the 235-mile section from Chicago to Detroit, beginning with the most troubled bottlenecks to the southwest.


“We’ve got a whole bunch of things coming to make that ridership experience significantly different,” Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said.


Last month, the Michigan legislature passed a bill green-lighting the east-west corridor project, funded by $360 million in competitive federal grants and $39 million in local, private and state matching funds. The deal included the state’s purchase of 138 miles of tracks between Dearborn and Kalamazoo previously owned by Norfolk & Southern Railroad.


“We’re hiring workers, laying track and building stations,” Porcari said. “We’ve gone from planning to construction in less than three years. That’s unprecedented speed for a national initiative of this magnitude.”


Joe Schwartz, a surgeon, railroad nut and former U.S. congressman, now Midwest Interstate Rail commissioner, predicted Monday that the east-west corridor from Porter, Indiana to Detroit would be “in prime condition in three years.”


“It’s already in prime shape west of Kalamazoo,” he said, where speeds are at 95 mph and only needed federal approval to reach 110.


Schwartz told the assembly that the complicated Norfolk & Southern deal had a “less than 50-50 chance.” He thanked the Snyder administration, Norfolk & Southern and MDOT for their patience and finesse, but couldn’t resist an additional nod.


“I’d like to thank the governor of Florida for deciding he didn’t want to use that money,” Schwartz cracked, referring to Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s rejection of over $2 billion in federal funds for high-speed rail in that state. Schwartz added lesser nods to the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin, who also rejected federal rail money. 


By contrast, Snyder and the other assembled officials and guests made sure Porcari and Federal Railroad Administration official Joseph Szabo felt welcome Monday. Snyder poke of “a partnership with the federal government” while Porcari spoke of an “extraordinarily tight working relationship” with Steudle.


“Thank you, come back anytime,” Steudle cracked to Porcari.


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