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Funding for Michigan passenger rail project still unclear

Early plans for the Ann Arbor to Traverse City Rail Project at a Michigan By Rail public forum, July 22, 2010 at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center.
Gary Howe / Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities
Early plans for the Ann Arbor to Traverse City Rail Project at a Michigan By Rail public forum, July 22, 2010 at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center.

The Ann Arbor to Traverse City Rail Project now has an estimated price tag and timeline, but the funding source and plans are still unclear.

Jim Bruckbauer, transportation director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, said 65 percent of the tracks along the route are ready for passenger trains going 60 mph. To finish upgrading the rest of the tracks, he said, will cost an estimated $153 million.

Bruckbauer said the rail system is projected to be done by 2025, but the funding source is still up in the air.

“Once we understand those costs, then we can start to identify the different potential funding sources, and that could be private investment or public investment,” Bruckbauer said. “You especially see that in bigger infrastructure projects like this.”

Groundwork is also working on planning what the train service will look like for passengers, he said, and the plan itself also needs funding to create. The plan would include things like stops, ticket prices and how many people could ride. He estimated the plan will be finished within 12 to 16 months.

In a written statement, Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Fischer said they support Groundwork’s leadership in the project, but the 2025 completion date “sounds ambitious” because competitive federal grants will likely be required.

Fischer said long-term operation costs — like maintenance — would also need to be considered. Bruckbauer said his team wants to eventually upgrade the tracks for higher speeds, adding more to the cost.

Bruckbauer said upgrading the track speed for 70 to 80 mph service wouldcost about $240 million. Most of the tracks, he said, are owned by the state, which is easier to work with than private rail companies. Bruckbauer said “the conversations have been positive so far” whileworking with private groups.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, Bruckbauer said Groundwork was planning demonstration rides to show people what the train service would look like. Delayed by the pandemic, he said Groundwork will offer demonstrations again within 12 months. Bruckbauer said the first rides will be private to people who planned the project, with public test runs coming after.

Bruckbauer said he is optimistic for the project’s future. People in northern and southeastern Michigan have talked about it since the 1960s, he said.

“We really feel like the project has come a long way and we’re excited about what could happen over the next few years here,” Bruckbauer said. “We just think it is huge opportunity for Michigan and mobility in the state.”

Patrick Bouman is originally from Whitehall, Michigan. He is a senior at Central Michigan University, where he studies Journalism. He will be interning for WCMU and the Traverse City Record Eagle this summer.