Authorization for the Michigan Department of Transportation to study reinstituting passenger rail service between Detroit and Holland, Mich., via Lansing and Grand Rapids, was part of the fiscal year 2015 budget approved by Gov. Rick Synder.
The study of potential ridership along the route is expected to be conducted later this year.
A grant application has been filed with the Service Development and New Technology program for $100,000 to fund the study. The program is a federal grant program facilitated by MDOT.
The grant is expected to be awarded in August with the study taking six months to complete.
The authorization for the study mandates that the results be reported to the Michigan state legislature by May 2015.
The ridership study will be limited in scope. An alternative analysis and environmental impact study will need to be conducted if the ridership study finds that demand supports the re-establishment of a passenger rail line between Detroit and Holland.
The cost of an alternative analysis and environmental impact study is expected to be between $700,000 to $1 million, according to Dan Sommerville, a policy associate with the Michigan Environmental Council and member of the Michigan By Rail team.
“(The ridership study) is a much lower-cost study, but it’s going to give us the main piece of whether or not to proceed with the rest of the planning process,” he said.
Sommerville said ridership demand would be determined by looking at a such things as traffic patterns along Interstate 96, which runs parallel to the former Pere Marequette route that would be used.
The ridership study will also examine population densities, employment concentration, and people’s origin and destination patterns along the corridor.
“We’ve got a number of statistics and data that shows the ridership demand is there, but essentially what this study does is looks at the ridership demand — what is the real demand for passenger rail service in this corridor,” Sommerville said.
He said a 2002 study only examined the Lansing to Detroit segment of the corridor.
“Since 2002, when that last report came out from Detroit to Lansing, there has been a 78 percent increase in rail ridership just here in Michigan,” he said.
The location of colleges and universities is another factor expected to support ridership demand in the Detroit-Holland corridor.
Sommerville said more than a dozen colleges and universities sit within walking distance of corridor rail stations.
“U of M put out a study that looked at what are the different kinds of riders that we have here in Michigan,” he said. “They broke down who was riding the train, and found that more than 20 percent of Michigan riders are students. That is a considerable source of demand right there.”
Sommerville noted that Michigan is trying to attract young workers, and studies have shown that young workers want a variety of public transportation options.
He said passenger rail is one of the pieces of infrastructure that Michigan needs to invest in to keep young workers from leaving the state.
Economic impact is another factor in favor of passenger rail service.
Sommerville said Grand Valley State University conducted a study in 2009 looking at the annual community benefit of having a rail station in a city. The study found $62 million in annual community benefits that are attributable to having a train station in town.
The study looked at the cost savings to passengers of taking rail over driving or flying, the spending of a rail passenger on retail, restaurants and hotels, and Amtrak’s annual investment in Michigan.
“Amtrak, in 2013, invested over $31 million in goods and services from Michigan companies,” Sommerville said. “That is a sizeable amount of investment that is coming from having rail service in Michigan.”
No cost estimates have been made for bringing the ex-Pere Marequette line – now owned by CSX – up to passenger train utility.
“Upgrading tracks to run trains at a higher speed is much less costly than getting new land and laying new tracks,” Sommerville said. “Essentially, the cost we are looking at here is upgrading the current rails and procuring new train cars.”
Until the May 1, 1971, inception of Amtrak, the Chesapeake & Ohio operated four trains a day between Detroit and Holland.
After Amtrak began, the only intercity rail service in Michigan linked Chicago and Detroit. That route has since been extended to Pontiac.
Michigan funds Amtrak service between Chicago and Grand Rapids, and between Chicago and Port Huron.