Track upgrades, Traverse City

$42 Million Rail Upgrade Boosts Prospects for Passenger Rail

Above photo: Recently completed track upgrades near Traverse City.

A passenger train line to Traverse City is one step closer to reality, thanks to a major boost from a federal grant program.

Last week U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced that Michigan was receiving about $30 million through the Federal Railroad Administration’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program to improve rail infrastructure in Michigan. About $21 million was for track repairs on the line between Ann Arbor and Traverse City.

Somehow, this remarkable news passed quietly under the radar last week, but for passenger rail advocates like us, it’s another huge milestone in connecting Michigan cities with modern transportation.

The funding will improve tracks just north of Ann Arbor. Specifically, it includes installing four miles of new rail, upgrading about 40 miles of track, and replacing or fixing 11 bridges and culverts between Ann Arbor and Owosso.

Great Lakes Central and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will chip in matching funds to make it a $42 million project, overall.

Even though the improvements are intended to help freight cargo move more efficiently, it’s still a major investment that directly benefits future passenger rail plans.

The tracks between Ann Arbor and Traverse City are almost entirely owned by the state of Michigan and are leased by the freight railroad company Great Lakes Central, in Owosso. The company uses the tracks to ship freight into and out of northern and mid-Michigan.

A 2018 feasibility study, coordinated by Groundwork, outlined a number of improvements needed to get passenger trains up and running along the same set of freight tracks. Recommendations included the need to improve sections of tracks, upgrade rail and road crossings, and replace bridges.

Investments from this grant will fund some of the same improvements the study team said were needed for future passenger service. In fact, any improvements intended to help freight shipping will almost always help future passenger service.

Separate from freight-oriented investments, momentum continues to build for more investment and continued work to restore passenger service to northern Michigan.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers, led by Senator Wayne Schmidt and the Michigan Senate, are taking major steps to keep freight and passenger rail a big part of Michigan’s state transportation and mobility investment strategy. And, right now, they are considering state budget proposals that will set aside significant funding for rail improvements around the state, including funding for additional track improvements to northern Michigan that could make passenger service a closer reality.

Stay tuned for ways you can get involved in shaping train service to northern Michigan. Groundwork logo for story end

James Bruckbauer

James Bruckbauer, Director, Transportation and Community Design.