Despite funding setbacks, administrators at the Southeast Michigan Council of Government and the Michigan Department of Transportation are continuing to work on creating a high-speed Ann Arbor-to-Detroit rail line, which would be the first major transit system in Southeast Michigan.
The ultimate goal of the project is to provide four roundtrip runs every weekday from Ann Arbor to Detroit with stops in Dearborn, Ypsilanti and the Detroit Metro Airport — a plan that is unfolding in stages as a result of changes to funding.
Funding constraints lessened on May 9, when the federal government gave the state a $200 million grant and access to a separate shared $336 million fund to expand high-speed rail, according to a May 9 article in the Detroit Free Press.
Specifically, Michigan will receive $2.8 million to build a new rail station in Ann Arbor, as well as $196.5 million for work on the Detroit-Kalamazoo corridor, according to the article. Part of a separate $336 million grant will help the state to purchase the necessary trains and equipment for the new rail lines.
Tim Hoeffner, MDOT’s administrator of high-speed rail and innovative projects advancement, said he thinks revitalizing the rail system will be a key transportation improvement in Southeastern Michigan.
“Any time people have choices in transportation, it’s a good thing,” he said. “And with gas prices climbing, I think that this just helps people have choices.”
Hoeffner added that the shortage of funds forces the administrators to be fiscally cautious because even with the addition of federal funds, upwards of $30 million are still needed to improve signalization and build sidetracks.
“When you have funding challenges it makes you think a little harder on every investment that you make and it helps you prioritize those investments better and I think, ultimately, that’s important,” he said.
Carmine Palumbo, director of transportation programs for SEMCOG, said in order to successfully achieve the goal of building high-speed rail throughout Southeast Michigan, multiple steps must first occur.
One way the plan attempts to address congestion at the busy Dearborn–Detroit corridor will be the West Detroit Connection Track Project, which involves creating additional tracks to separate freight trains and passenger trains. This portion of the project has already been allocated funds, and MDOT plans to begin work this summer. Upon completion, the project is expected to reduce travel time in the area by five to ten minutes.
Train cars are also in the process of being renovated and SEMCOG hopes to receive Federal Railway Administration approval of the seats by the end of May or early June, Palumbo said. FRA approval would allow for mass production and installation of the seats, he said.
Palumbo said since the goal of running four roundtrips on weekdays is contingent on operating funds, there is no set timeframe in which the railway is expected to be operational, adding that progress on the rail has been slow because of this uncertainty.
Despite budget constraints, SEMCOG hopes to be able to soon provide transportation to events such as University football games and the Thanksgiving Day parade, and their goal is for these “event trains” to be running by the end of the year, according to Palumbo.
“The project continues to move forward — not as quickly as any of us would have liked — but nonetheless, we’re going forward as best we can, accomplishing all the tasks that need to be accomplished,” he said.
City Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) agreed that the railway would be a great addition to regional public transportation.
“Whether (commuters) are taking the bus or the train is a decision each person would make but I’d like both options to be available,” she said.
Briere said the majority of the budget is controlled by the state and federal levels of government, and that the city of Ann Arbor has very little to do with any financial decisions.
“Unfortunately, a lot is dependent on things that the city has absolutely no control over,” she said.