Economist: 'Strong case' for passenger rail viability

A packed room listens to the presentation hosted by the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities about a passenger rail service from Ann Arbor to Traverse City.

TRAVERSE CITY — A standing-room-only crowd packed into a library meeting room to listen to the outcome of an initial study into whether passenger rail service from southeast Michigan into Traverse City is feasible.

Consultant Alexander Metcalf, president of Transportation Economics & Management Systems Inc., spoke at length Wednesday evening about the outcome of the feasibility study. Metcalf said there is a strong case for passenger train service in northern Michigan that would pass both federal and state standards for financial and economic viability — an unexpected forecast for what at first seemed to him to be small, far-flung northern cities.

"By golly, you are big during summer," said the British economist.

The rub is that getting to a viable passenger rail system will take not only hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, Metcalf said, but will involve an enormous planning effort that must be coordinated among more than a dozen communities along the proposed route and both state and federal regulators.

"There is a very strong case. We can jump the federal hurdles and we can jump the state hurdles," Metcalf said. "This project has a lot of payback."

Metcalf said possible passenger rail service to connect the southeast and northwest areas of the Lower Peninsula would provide employment growth with projected $4.1 billion in new income through 2050, along with $6.5 billion worth of increased property values in communities along the railroad corridor. Then there are the estimated billions of dollars in combined revenues among local and federal income taxes and property taxes, he said.

In general financial terms, Metcalf said it would take about $400 million to bring 60-mph passenger rail service to the area, including a connection to Petoskey. He said it would take another couple hundred million dollars to upgrade the service to 90-mph trains, then another couple hundred million dollars more to reach high-tech sprinter-style rail service that runs at 110 mph.

That sounds financially insurmountable to many, Metcalf said, but the proposal could come together through public-private partnerships in which state-owned rail lines could be upgraded and leased.

Metcalf answered questions from the crowd of more than 70, including whether a railroad station in Traverse City could be located at Cherry Capital Airport to create a "multi-modal hub," as well as the affordability of tickets for passengers.

Larry Goodenow, of Glen Arbor, attended the meeting and said he believes any passenger train into Traverse City should stop at the airport.

Heather Shumaker, of Traverse City, also attended and said she is a passenger rail service proponent.

"We hate cars. Our family travels as many vacations as possible by train," Shumaker said. "And I hate the long drive downstate, too."

However, Richard Wulf of rural Traverse City said he wants to know more about possible trade-offs.

"You can't see the future and know all the answers and you can't see the future and know all the problems," Wulf said. "I want to know the pitfalls."

Marty Colburn, Traverse City's manager, attended the presentation and said passenger rail service will continue to be a discussion topic for city government. The feasibility study raises some good questions and food for thought, he said.

Hans Voss, executive director for the Traverse City-based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, which hosted the public presentation, said the concept for passenger rail service into the area received overwhelming support during the Grand Vision regional master planning effort.

More information about the proposed passenger rail service is available at online, including results of the preliminary feasibility study by Metcalf's Maryland-based consulting company.