Traverse City News and Events

Rail Renaissance: What’s The Status Of TC-To-Downstate Rail Corridor?

By Craig Manning | May 30, 2023

A project aimed at bringing passenger rail connectivity back to northern Michigan is still in the works – and is making big progress behind the scenes.

Back in 2018, Traverse City’s Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities published a report which projected that reestablishing rail service between Traverse City and Ann Arbor could attract 1.5 million riders and generate $100 million in revenue by 2040. But nearly five years later, passenger rail connections between the Grand Traverse region and downstate remain hypothetical.

Despite the lack of publicly visible momentum for the project, though, Carolyn Ulstad, Groundwork’s transportation program manager, assures that a rail renaissance remains a top priority for the organization – and that a “big shift” has happened in the past year to push this concept a lot closer to reality.

For years, Ulstad says the effort – formerly labeled as A2TC (or Ann Arbor to Traverse City) – was just an “idea” that Groundwork had. That idea landed in the public eye after the aforementioned 2018 report, which came at the end of a six-month study led by Groundwork and a steering committee including Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA), the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers. The report estimated a $40 million price tag for track repairs, to get the existing rail lines between northern Michigan and downstate ready for passenger trains. And while the study recommended a timeline that would have executed those repairs in time to launch special-event “excursion” trains between downstate to Traverse City as early as 2020, hurdles over funding – not to mention a global pandemic – delayed those plans.

According to Ulstad, the passenger rail “idea” has picked up considerable steam in the past year – to the point where it has now been “elevated from an idea that Groundwork is just kind of working on, to something that is now a state and federal priority.”

“I think that's the big difference,” Ulstad says of where the passenger rail project stands right now, versus where it was when The Ticker checked in a year ago. “I think the financial investment from the state over this past year, and then also the federal grant that we received to work on the next phase, really shows that our legislators see that this is a viable project.”

Last spring, former State Senator Wayne Schmidt – who at the time chaired the Senate’s Transportation Appropriations Committee – told The Ticker he was advocating for money to be set aside for rail projects in the state’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget, including for a Phase II feasibility study for the A2TC project (now just called “Michigan’s North-South Passenger Rail”). The final budget ended up earmarking $1 million for that study. Additionally, the federal government kicked in $1.3 million for Phase II, through its Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant program.

There could be more money to come, too. With the FY 2024 budget in the works, the Michigan Senate has proposed a draft that includes a whopping $100 million for rail grants. If wrapped into the final budget, those grants would encourage “high-speed rail development” throughout the state by providing matching grants to help local governments seek out and qualify for federal grant opportunities.

Armed with $2.3 million in funding (so far), Groundwork and its partners – including, in particular, the Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority, which is technically the grantee for the RAISE money – are hoping to get some firm planning steps completed within the next year to move the North-South Passenger Rail a lot closer to the finish line. For comparison’s sake, Ulstad says the 2018 feasibility study which kicked off this whole process cost somewhere in the $120,000-$140,000 range.

“You can do a lot more planning work with $2.3 million,” she tells The Ticker. “It’s obviously not enough money for, say, a construction project; that will be a lot more expensive. But for a planning role, this is a substantial amount of money to do the next phase.”

What exactly will that phase entail? 

Right now, Ulstad says Groundwork and its partners are “in a little bit of a holding pattern” because they are still waiting on “the final signatures” for the federal RAISE grant. In the meantime, though, Groundwork has been working “with federal officials, MDOT, and the Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority” to complete relevant paperwork and “get all our ducks in a row” so that the Phase II study can start as soon as the RAISE funds are in hand.

The Phase II study itself will consist of a two-pronged approach. First, a rail consultant will evaluate “the actual infrastructure side” of the tracks to identify specific improvements that are necessary to make them passenger ready. Second, the study will look at what Ulstad calls “the softer side of things,” including ridership projections, station locations, how many trains could hypothetically be running each day, and more.

The end goal of the study is a document called a “Service Development Plan,” which Ulstad says is required by the Federal Railroad Administration to commence legal passenger service.

“It’s going to be a full business plan,” she explains. “If the feasibility plan was just looking at what's possible, this Phase II study is taking a specific route, specific timetables, how it's all working, and saying, ‘This is the plan to move forward.’”

Because federal timelines can be unpredictable and slow-moving, Ulstad isn’t ready to say when Phase II will begin. She does promise, however, that the next phase will include substantial community engagement – and not just in Traverse City or Ann Arbor. The nearly-300-mile-long rail corridor will also pass through cities like Howell, Mt. Pleasant, Clare, Cadillac, Kalkaska, and Petoskey, all of which will be included in the planning process.

“I think our first step is going to be assembling a group of representatives from each of the communities along this corridor, because they know their communities better than anyone,” Ulstad says. That group could include everyone from local leaders (officials from city or village government, DDA board members, neighborhood association presidents) to engaged, interested citizens. Beyond that “core group” of representatives, Groundwork is also planning “typical public engagement stuff,” including surveys, websites, email updates, and public engagement sessions. “We’re also planning to hire an equity consultant to work with us on public engagement, so we can make sure we’re reaching populations that are typically underserved or not talked to during large infrastructure projects like this,” Ulstad adds.

“Ultimately, we want to make this whole thing interactive, go to places where people are, and make it an engaging process where people really feel like they can give their opinion on what they would like to see from this rail line,” she concludes. “The goal is to have a true visioning process, where we’re asking, ‘Hey, if this was in your community, what would it be like for you? Would you use it? Where would you go? And how would it make your community more livable?’ We want [this rail line] to be something that can really benefit our communities on a day-to-day basis.”

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