From the Daily: Workin' on a railroad

Published November 3, 2006

Michigan's attempt to claim a more sustainable and secure future is in many ways a collective cultural response to the slow and raspy death of its automotive industry. And in a state that has shunned public transportation in nearly all forms, trains are finally revealing their potential. Perhaps steel and wheels cannot solve all of Michigan's economic difficulties or ease the transition to a knowledge-based economy, but a new model of human and environmental interaction surely couldn't hurt.

What southeastern Michigan needs is a commuter rail line - both to provide a much-needed service to commuters, and because the proposed commuter rail is more economically viable than the alternative. Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje's floating plan for an Ann Arbor-Livingston County commuter rail line to ease congestion along the US-23 corridor may become a reality.

Over the past year, decades of careful planning for public transit have found a home in a set of existing freight lines. Early June saw a coalition of local politicians, entrepreneurs, railway enthusiasts and University representatives embark on an 80-mile passenger voyage along the Ann Arbor and Great Lakes Central Railroads in anticipation of the inception of a new era of transportation based on an old model - commuter rail. The occasion was the union of the local government's enthusiasm for the rail project with concerted private support.

Louis P. Ferris Jr., owner of the Federated Financial Corp of America, acquired the Tuscola Saginaw Bay Railway (promptly renamed the Great Lakes Central Railway) in March and has since dedicated his financial prowess to building a coalition of public subsidies and private-sector funds to facilitate the project's groundbreaking. While you may not be able to ride the rails by this time next year, Ferris's support should help to boost morale for the wait. Ever the optimistic gambler, Ferris has also invested in 52 double-decker, stainless-steel passenger rail cars.

The project will not require laying new rail, though significant modifications of the existing freight line will be required to enable the passenger rail line to make its first run in three years. The track must be updated to allow trains to travel up to 60 miles per hour; several crossing gates must be installed along the line, and at least three stations, including a proposed park-and-ride stop, will have to be built. All told, the commuter project is a $27-million investment - a number that, as Hieftje and Ferris point out, is far less terrifying than the $500 million required to add a third lane to the local stretch of US-23.

The wide coalition rallying in support of the return of trains to Michigan's heartlands should make the prospect of raising the required $27 million less harrowing. Sustainable energy advocates, cultural romantics, proponents of more effective land-use laws and sequestered suburbanites looking for a bit of the East Coast experience - or sick of the search for parking garages - all rejoice in the increasing likelihood of the line's construction.

But money alone will not bring the trains. Finances and red tape waltz hand-in-hand over the graves of many would-be community initiatives, and the passenger rail is no exception. As per the policies of the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Ann Arbor community must conduct an environmental impact study of the proposed changes to Ferris's rail lines. The study must then weigh these results against the US-23 expansion plans. The study is slated to take 18 months, but Hieftje is optimistic that the same coalition that will fund the rails will also help to speed up grassroots research efforts.

Public transportation can do wonders for the transformation of communities from isolated nodes of random and temporary interaction to bustling, dynamic human landscapes. All that for $400 million less than the cost of a third lane? Even the ghost of Henry Ford would drink to that.