Plans chug along to boost rail service in west Michigan, Kalamazoo to Pontiac
- Passenger rail advocacy group wants to add two more daily trips between Kalamazoo and Pontiac
- They’re encouraged by ‘the most passenger rail friendly Legislature we’ve had’
- Michigan Senate proposed $100 million for high-speed rail improvements
Steve Vagnozzi envisions a future where west Michigan residents could take a train to Detroit in the morning, catch a ball game, grab dinner and be home in time for bed.
Vagnozzi, government affairs coordinator for the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, told Bridge Michigan that the opportunities are increasing to expand state passenger rail routes, so long as there’s the political will and the money to make it happen.
The association seeks to add two additional daily train trips to the four now running between Kalamazoo and Pontiac. Vagnozzi contends the expansion could largely rely on existing infrastructure and would be “low-hanging fruit” to gin up more interest in the state’s rail lines.
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Further down the line, the association also supports the creation of a passenger route connecting Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo.
Many lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature are enthusiastic about passenger rail, giving Vagnozzi optimism that the winds are shifting in rail advocates’ favor.
“This is probably the most passenger rail friendly Legislature we've had, as long as I remember,” he said.
Millions of dollars in federal grant money released in recent years have fueled upgrades on the state’s three Amtrak-operated passenger train routes — which run from Chicago to Detroit and Pontiac (Wolverine service), Chicago to Port Huron (Blue Water) and Chicago to Grand Rapids (Pere Marquette).
Enthusiasm from the current crop of Michigan lawmakers for passenger rail improvements could free up some state spending as well.
The state Senate budget proposal includes $100 million for grants to "encourage high-speed rail development" by providing matching funds that local governments need to qualify for federal money.
Sen. Darrin Camilleri, D-Trenton, recently told Bridge that Senate Democrats “want to see the state of Michigan investing in larger rail infrastructure, particularly public transit, to help us be in a position to compete.”
“It's one way that we can address climate change, alleviate some of our transportation issues and actually help us compete for talent across the country as we're dealing with economic development,” he continued.
The Michigan Transportation Department has eight active federal grants open along the state’s three passenger rail routes, including projects to replace railroad ties and bridges, prevent trespassing on train tracks, even out curves to allow trains to run up to 110 mph and fix Detroit’s New Center station.
The state’s Office of Rail has also submitted federal applications for competitive grants to improve and increase service on all three existing routes, as well as a possible extension of the Detroit line into Canada.
Separately, a northern Michigan passenger rail group in 2022 received $2.3 million in state and federal funding to research a new route connecting metro Detroit to northern Michigan cities including Traverse City and Petoskey.
That study alone will take up to two years to complete, so it could be quite a while before Detroit residents take a train to the National Cherry Festival.
The Michigan Railroad Passenger Association’s plans haven’t advanced to the study stage yet.
Vagnozzi said they’re hopeful the Senate’s proposed multi-million investment in passenger train grants could provide a starting point for that research, as well as a solid base to offer matches for future federal funding.
In the long term, tending to state rail options could boost additional interest for Michigan riders if more frequencies are added with Michiganders in mind, he continued.
“Our rationale is since the state of Michigan is investing at least $30 million a year in Amtrak service, we should focus some of that on Detroit instead of Chicago,” he said.
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