Coast-to-Coast passenger rail project is worth pursuing and potentially profitable, study finds

Passenger rail service reconnecting Detroit with Grand Rapids could generate millions of dollars in annual profits and provide well over a million trips per year, a study released Monday finds.

The economic benefits and number of passengers anticipated by the Coast-to-Coast Passenger Rail Ridership and Cost Estimate Study justify moving the project forward, said project manager Liz Treutel Callin, transportation policy associate for the Michigan Environmental Council.

"Business leaders, economic developers, local governments and college students have all told us they support the idea of knitting together our cities, cultural centers, and other institutions by rail," Callin said. "Now we have an in-depth report showing that the Coast-to-Coast passenger rail project is one worth pursuing, with significant potential benefits for Michigan's economy and quality of life. This study puts us one important step closer to the exciting possibility of reconnecting our coasts by rail."

Conducted by Transportation Economics and Management Systems, Inc., the study examined three potential routes from Detroit to Holland via Lansing and Grand Rapids that could be established by upgrading existing rail. One route passes through Ann Arbor and Jackson. Another passes through Ann Arbor and Howell. The third route bypasses Ann Arbor, heading from Wayne to Howell.

Our Report     Executive Summary

The study considered several scenarios for trip frequency: two daily round trips at 79 miles per hour; four round trips a day at 79 and 110 mph; and eight daily round trips at 110 mph.

Key findings include:

  • Both of the proposed routes that pass through Ann Arbor are viable options that deserve further study. The third route likely does not merit further study, since it bypasses Ann Arbor and would not directly serve that city's large ridership demand.
  • While the route through Jackson showed the greatest potential ridership and revenue, the route through Ann Arbor and Howell promised the greatest return on investment. By 2040, the latter route could provide up to 1.59 million trips per year with eight daily round trips at 110 mph.
  • Establishing basic 79-mph service on the 186-mile route through Ann Arbor and Howell would require an annual subsidy of about $3 million and an upfront investment of $130 million. For context, that's comparable to the cost of building 13 miles of interstate highway.
  • Although establishing 110-mph service would require greater capital investment, it would yield higher ridership that would allow the service to recover its operating costs and in fact could generate $12 million in annual profits on the route through Ann Arbor and Howell.

Concurrent with the study, Michigan Environmental Council and Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers collected feedback on the Coast-to-Coast project from 575 Michigan residents online and in person at 11 town hall meetings and five meetings on college campuses along the potential routes. The public input showed that residents are eager for more transportation options and supported the study's findings that Coast-to-Coast service would see high ridership.

"As home to a major airport, we see huge economic development potential in having Coast-to-Coast passenger service come to our community," said Steve Peterson, planning director for Cascade Charter Township. "This service will expand travel options for Michigan residents and create opportunities for our businesses. We are eager to see it become reality.

Cascade Charter Township is located on the proposed route just outside Grand Rapids, is home to Gerald R. Ford International Airport and was among 11 local governments, economic development agencies and other organizations that provided matching funds for the study.

"I love the idea of connecting Ann Arbor to Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Detroit by passenger rail," said Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, an Ann Arbor software design firm. "The Coast-to-Coast service would open up new business opportunities in those markets and allow my employees to travel across Michigan and still be productive. I've also found that younger workers expect to work and live in a place that does not require them to buy a car. More rail options will improve our talent recruitment and make Michigan a place that fits their idea of a vibrant community."

The next major step toward establishing Coast-to-Coast passenger rail service is a full feasibility study to include environmental impact analyses, an implementation plan and a review of public-private partnership options.

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