TRAVERSE CITY — A five-month-long project is chugging along the railroad tracks that hug West River Road south of Traverse City.

The Michigan Department of Transportation is spending $850,000 to replace deteriorated ties. Though aimed primarily at maintaining freight capability, the project that began in May also will allow the tracks to legally carry passenger trains.

“We’re doing some tie replacements to help preserve the existing rail corridor and making some slight improvements to it so we can facilitate the existing freight business that we have up in the area,” said Jim D’Lamater, engineer/manager for the MDOT Office of Rail.

“And in conjunction with that, to allow for potential future passenger trains to traverse over the tracks, because in their current state, they’re not able to,” he added.

Freight trains travel the route twice a week, despite the relatively poor condition of an 11-mile stretch along West River Road and Keystone Road. Two businesses, one in Williamsburg and one on the west edge of Boardman Lake, move freight on the tracks, D’Lamater said.

Deteriorating wood ties, over time, can allow tracks to waver away from perfect alignment, and the federal government has strict specifications for what is acceptable for different uses. That stretch hasn’t been rated to carry passengers for several years.

“The amount of deviation you have between the rails, the distance between the rails, how much the rail can be up and down, the number of good ties you have in a specific length” had fallen out of federal requirements for passenger traffic, D’Lamater said.

When the project is complete in mid-October, the tracks will be brought back into close enough alignment to allow passenger trains to legally travel the route, he said.

That’s exciting news for local proponents of passenger rail.

“The obvious great news for the idea is that now, passengers can ride those tracks, albeit very slowly,” said Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities Program Director Jim Lively. “Once the track upgrade is done, we could carry passengers all the way between Traverse City and Ann Arbor. That’s a significant step.”

Groundwork in 2015 launched an effort to strive toward a passenger rail link between Ann Arbor and Traverse City. That 11-mile segment south of town was the only section of track between the two cities not rated to carry passengers.

“The idea of the Ann Arbor/Traverse City passenger rail project came out of the community visioning process called the Grand Vision,” said Lively. “There was a surprising amount of interest and support around passenger rail back to this community.”

The Groundwork Center started with that level of interest and decided the best immediate step toward that goal would be upgrading the stretch of tracks south of Traverse City. The MDOT project will accomplish that goal.

“The fact that we can disembark or get on at the Filling Station or somewhere nearby there in Traverse City just changes, mentally, this idea that we are fully connected now,” Lively said.

He believes an excursion train could travel between the two cities, perhaps to a University of Michigan football game, as early as 2020.

“It might take six or seven hours to get there, but if we make it fun, and you’re going to something cool, why wouldn’t you do it?” said Lively.

Groundwork’s goal of high-speed passenger rail to Ann Arbor will take longer.

D’Lamater said track-use agreements with various railroad operators along the route would need to be worked out. And various spots along the tracks between Traverse City and Ann Arbor hold speed limitations, some as low as 30 miles per hour, because of track conditions. Those would need to be tackled over a period of time.

“You pick off the worst places next — it’s a process of upgrades,” said Lively.

D’Lamater said the old wood ties from along Keystone and West River roads, some now stacked alongside the route, eventually will be removed by the contractor and most likely will go to a local co-generation plant where they will be burned to create electricity.

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