Early Train Study Findings Support Service From TC To Ann Arbor
By Beth Milligan | April 5, 2018
Consultants are only halfway through a six-month study on the possibility of reestablishing passenger rail service between Traverse City and Ann Arbor, but initial findings are already making a convincing case: demand is there to justify the return of trains to northern Michigan.
Representatives from consulting firm Transportation Economics and Management Systems (TEMS) are meeting with Traverse City and Petoskey officials this week to present initial findings from their study. After analyzing tourism and visitor data for both communities, TEMS President Alexander Metcalf tells The Ticker the firm determined more than 6 million visitors a year travel to Traverse City and Petoskey – and says those figures are expected to double by 2045.
“The visitor numbers are very, very strong,” Metcalf says. “They blew us away, to be honest. When we first looked at Traverse City and Petoskey, they seemed like quite small communities, and the idea that small communities would need train service – it was a bit like, are they joking? But then when we come up here and see that the town blows up to a half million people any given week in the summer, that’s not a little town at all. Towns that have more than 300,000 people can certainly have train service.”
The visitor data makes a compelling case for passenger service not only because of the availability of riders, according to TEMS, but because of the infrastructure impact such traffic will have on Traverse City and Petoskey if tourists come primarily by automobile. Metcalf notes 6 million visitors is roughly one-third of the visitor count at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, which averages approximately 20 million attendees annually. At current growth rates, Traverse City alone could attract 5.6 million visitors by 2030 and 8.8 million by 2045, the firm found.
“Think about what the city would look like if you double the number of visitors and they all come by automobile,” says TEMS Director of Operations Planning Edwin “Chip” Kraft.
The train feasibility study is being spearheaded by a steering committee that includes the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA), the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers. Funding for the A2TC project, as it’s called, comes from a federal transportation planning grant and local matching funds from MDOT, the City of Alma, City of Traverse City, Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau, Petoskey Downtown, Traverse City Tourism, and Washtenaw County. Reestablishing a passenger line to northern Michigan has been identified as a goal in Michigan’s State Rail Plan, with existing tracks already in place between Traverse City and Ann Arbor (as well as a further leg north to Petoskey).
TEMS is tasked with running detailed modeling on potential demand for a passenger rail service, including estimating how many people will ride trains based on demographics and travel patterns and preferences. The firm is evaluating everything from city populations to tourism and visitor data to student attendance at major colleges along the route, including the University of Michigan, Central Michigan University, and Alma College.
The feasibility study will also include analysis of the entire existing track within the proposed route to determine where infrastructure investment is needed, as well as project costs and expected revenues for different tiers of train speeds and services. The end result of the study, to be completed by June, will be a business plan project partners can use to move forward with establishing passenger rail service between northern and southeastern Michigan. The project has the opportunity to bring jobs and “a model of economic opportunity for a dozen communities along the (route),” Metcalf believes.
According to TEMS, the final business plan will likely include a short-term recommendation to first establish excursion trains – or trains running for special events, such as fall color tours – to reintroduce rail as a concept to the region at slower speeds that won’t require as many costly infrastructure upgrades. Jim Bruckbauer, deputy director at the Groundwork Center, believes an excursion train could be a reality as soon as summer 2019. “While ongoing work is happening toward (establishing) daily service, we want to start running special event trains,” he says, adding that the group is working on solutions to fix a section of track just outside of Traverse City so the train can run all the way into town.
TEMS will likely then provide implementation recommendations for a longer 10-20 year plan to gradually upgrade train service to higher speeds and more frequent service. The firm is modeling costs to run trains at 60mph, 90mph, and 110mph – the last of which would be fast enough to beat an automobile and could thus significantly increase ridership demand. The firm is also evaluating options to run the train to areas like Williamsburg, Kalkaska and Mancelona, and to accommodate stops at major ski resorts like Boyne Highlands.
Several major questions still need to be answered for the project going forward, including how the project would be funded – which could include a combination of federal, state, and local dollars, plus private investment – and who would run the train service. Community partners along the route could form their own joint train company, the line could become part of the state’s Amtrak service, or a private company could be brought in to run the rail service, among options discussed. More detailed analysis and recommendations regarding all of the components of a possible A2TC line are expected to be forthcoming by the study’s conclusion.
“We’re trying to project the full range of options, from an excursion start-up to a full build, understanding some of this may take 15 to 20 years to achieve,” says Kraft. “We’re laying it all out at the start, so that we don’t do something in the short term that would contradict what we want to do in the long term.”