February 16, 2015 – Transportation has been in the news a lot lately – and not in good ways either. All of the stories have been about how our infrastructure has negatively impacted us in one way or another. This is not a surprise given that the state legislature has not increased funding since 1997 and real dollars have actually declined over the years. It is hard to do more with less.
Last week, a state auditor general report criticized MDOT for spending $10 million on rail cars for service that has yet to begin. The implication is that these dollars could have been spent on other more important items. If you take a narrow view of the situation, you can see how they would come up with this conclusion. It is true. The cars are sitting at a rail yard in Owosso and are not in revenue service. However, sometimes you need to look at the big picture to see the plan and the vision.
Government is constantly being pushed to operate like a business, to be more entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurs have a vision for future needs and find innovative ways to get there. And they have to be patient.
SEMCOG and MDOT have been working on bringing commuter rail service back to the Detroit-Ann Arbor corridor for a number of years. It is a plan that began years ago after a joint study indicated commuter rail was the preferred way of connecting Ann Arbor to Detroit. The plan has many moving parts – tracks needed to be acquired and improved, stations identified and upgraded, and cars and locomotives secured. Well, much of this has occurred. Specifically:
- MDOT purchased the track and is improving the track and signal systems with federal dollars.
- Obviously, cars have been leased and beautifully refurbished.
- A project is underway in west Detroit that will eliminate a major conflict between freight and commuter trains, cutting about 10 minutes off the existing Pontiac to Chicago service as well as the new Ann Arbor to Detroit service.
- Local communities have also invested time and resources in new station construction. A new station has recently opened in Dearborn. Studies are underway for stations in Ann Arbor and the New Center area in Detroit. Ypsilanti is looking at making improvements to the old Depot Station.
- Displays of the rail cars and proposed new service have occurred in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and Livingston County. These displays have drawn thousands of people eager for the beginning of service
All of this has happened with no new state revenue! I would say that MDOT and the communities should be commended for their vision and tenacity to continuing to move forward – slower than anyone wants – to implement this plan. We have the plan, tracks are being fixed, and stations are being built/improved. The cars can be leased out for a while, but with some additional dollars and an agreement from Amtrak, we are closer to being able to begin service in this corridor than we have since the late 1970s.
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