Traverse City News and Events

Locally-Led Passenger Rail Project Takes Its Biggest Step Yet

By Craig Manning | Feb. 16, 2024

“What took so long?”

That question is the one Carolyn Ulstad, transportation program manager for Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, has found herself answering repeatedly this week, following the organization’s announcement of a major milestone for its long-gestating effort to reestablish passenger rail service between Traverse City and the rest of the state.

Groundwork announced Tuesday it was putting out a request for proposals (RFP) for a consultant to lead a crucial Phase II study for the project. Phase II will establish an actionable roadmap for how Groundwork, the Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority, and other partners can go about fixing up railways, establishing passenger rail stations, and ultimately getting rail service up and running. It is, Ulstad says, the most significant step yet for the project.

Getting to this point took some time: It was the fall of 2018 when Groundwork published the Phase I study that officially kicked off the rail project. According to that study, reigniting upstate-to-downstate rail service had the potential to attract 1.5 million riders and generate $100 million in revenue by 2040. The study also recommended the launch of “excursion” or special event trains to Traverse City by 2020, to test the market and allow riders to experience rail at speeds of 60 miles per hour. From there, the plan was to build upon the excursion trains by adding both regular service and higher-speed trains.

Four years after that initial excursion train was supposed to hit the rail, though, passenger rail between Traverse City and downstate has yet to take form.

“While it has been a long time since the 2018 study, there was actually a lot going on in the background that whole time,” Ulstad tells The Ticker. “The pandemic happened not long after the 2018 study came out, and that delayed us. Then in 2021, we got back on track and applied for a grant from the federal government’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program. We didn’t get the grant, but we found out we’d been a finalist. We reapplied in 2022, and we were awarded a RAISE grant of $1.3 million.”

That $1.3 million – along with another $1 million in grant funds from the Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Opportunity – gave Groundwork and its partners enough to pursue the Phase II study. But the gears of government move slowly, and Ulstad says “it wasn’t until August or September [of 2023] that we were actually in a place where we could start using the funds.”

Now, after another small delay – the RFP for a Phase II consultant had to be approved by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) – the project, dubbed Northern Michigan Passenger Rail, is finally making significant headway.

Per Ulstad, the Northern Michigan Passenger Rail’s Phase II RFP should put the project on the radar of rail consulting firms from all over the world. The deadline for proposals is March 25, and as long as the RFP attracts at least three proposals, the next step is an evaluation and interview process that will culminate with the hiring of a consultant in May. (If the RFP gets fewer than three responses, Ulstad says the process will have to start over.)

Where the Phase I study looked mostly at the feasibility of reestablishing passenger rail traffic, Phase II is intended to answer more of the nitty gritty questions of what service would actually look like.

“So, the consultant will be doing things like analyzing track conditions, or looking at proposed schedules for trains and at all the associated cost estimates with that,” Ulstad says. “And then they’ll also be looking at proposed routes, service options, operation analysis, station locations, what the stations would look like, and more.”

Concurrent with the study, Ulstad says the Northern Michigan Passenger Rail partners plan to launch a public engagement process to offer residents in areas like Traverse City a more concrete glimpse at “what service would actually look like in their communities.” For instance, based on feedback from the consultant, Groundwork should be able to start sharing some details about potential train routes, train station locations, and other details.

Ulstad says there are also plans to establish an advisory committee incorporating people from each community to be serviced by the Northern Michigan Passenger Rail project. 

Of course, the big question going forward won’t be “What took so long?” but “How much longer?”

Ulstad doesn’t have an answer just yet for when Michiganders might actually be riding the new north-south rail. She estimates the Phase II study will take 16-18 months. And even after that, there’s still a relatively long road to go, including additional public engagement and infrastructure improvements along the railway.

Perhaps most notably, the post-Phase II stage will require project partners to figure out who will actually be in charge of operating the train system, and whether it should be privately-owned or part of a public-private partnership. The latter model is more common in the world of rail travel, though Ulstad points to Brightline, a privately-owned passenger rail line that runs between Miami and Orlando, as an example of how a fully private model might work.

But even with all of those steps, could Michigan see a fully operational north-south passenger rail line by the end of the decade?

“I think that’s realistic,” Ulstad says.

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