Environment Picture

On Track: Summit showcases growing consensus that rail resurgence is critical to Michigan’s future

MEC President Chris Kolb with Governor Rick Snyder
Improved railroad transportation is a critical catalyst for Michigan's economy and quality of life, dozens of policy experts and political leaders agreed at a groundbreaking gathering organized by the Michigan Environmental Council this fall. 
Gov. Rick Synder delivered the keynote address at the Oct.31 Michigan Rail Summit 2011 in Lansing, where he called for advocates to spread the word about the social and economic benefits of passenger and freight rail. Synder called for continued progress on rail to help make Michigan "... the centerpiece of a broader logistical connection that goes all the way from Sty. Louis to Chicago to Detroit and ... continues on to Toronto and Montreal with Detroit right in the heart of it.
"Rail can solve some real problems," said Synder. "it can be economically efficient" and contribute to "sustainability and also an urban lifestyle-- something our young people are looking for."
More than 200 people from across the state attended the summit, which came on the heels of good news for passenger rail: roughly $500 million in federal and state funds have been secured over the past two years to improve speeds, rebuild trains stations, purchase train sets and make critical track improvements on Amtrak's Detroit-to-Chicago line. 
"We're hiring workers, laying track and building stations," John Porcari, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation told summit participants. The work will allow speeds of up to 110 miles per hour on sections of the Chicago-Detroit trip and eliminate delays caused when passengers trains must slow or top for freight trains. It will cut up to 90 minutes off the real-time train trip between the two cities. 
Porcari told the gathering that he expects 80 percent of the U.S. population can be connected to enhanced-speed passenger rail systems in the next 25 years, bringing economic growth and opportunity to regions and markets. He said rail must work with roads, airports and bus systems to connect people to places and Michigan-made goods like cherries, lumber and automobile components to markets. 
"Transportation is a system and it only works as well as the weakest link in that system," Porcari said. "So when people ask if roads, bridges, rail, or aviation is the most important link in the system, our answer is, "Yes, All of the above." 
The summit was organized by the Michigan Environmental Council, which brought together policy leaders and advocates from across the state and Washington, DC, to explore the future of passenger and freight rail in Michigan.
The gathering was unique in that it nurtured agreement on rail's importance from those often on opposing sides: Democratic and Republican opinion leaders echoed each other's thoughts; the state Chamber of Commerce and environmental groups were on the same stage; and grassroots advocates nodded in agreement with the sentiments of policy wonks and academics. 
"With an additional 100 million Americans expected to share the roadways by the year 2050, there is widespread recognition that we need to expand options for connecting people to places and goods to markets," said Chris Kolb, president of Michigan Environmental Council. :"We're pleased that the summit was able to bring together so many diverse interest to explore that future."
Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, Told Summit-goers that Michigan needs to plan for the future: "When you get your head around the idea of 100 million more people.. "we've got to move them and feed them and do all of the other things that we need in life. And there's no way we can do that with one single mode of transportation. 
The Summit was the latest and highest profile of the Council;s continuing efforts to improve public transportation options throughout Michigan. Last year, MEC coordinated 16 public listening sessions where more than 1,000 residents provided input into what they'd like to see in a passenger rail system. Comments and summaries were forwarded to state and federal agencies. 
MEC also has been in the vanguard of the Complete Streets movement. A statewide Complete Streets policy-- and dozens of similar measures adopted by local governments--requires that the needs of non-motorized transportation be considered in designing roadways.
Porcari, of the federal Department of Transportation, noted that Michigan is the state that put the nation on wheels and led to the creation "the best highway system in the world." Now he said, "What America needs is a similar commitment to high speed rail."
He asked participants to think of their own communities and the tremendous road infrastructure that was created and paid for by their parents' and grandparents' generations. "How are we going to pay it forward?" he asked.
-Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.
RELATED TOPICS: transportation policy
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