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Long just a plan, details coming together to make high-speed rail a reality in Michigan

(The following story by Chris Killian appeared on the Michigan Messenger website on May 7, 2009.)

LANSING, Mich. — The plan has been laid-out, governors throughout the region have signed-on to it and the money is now available. All that needs to happen now is a political engine to move the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative forward.

And even though he might be new to Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer might be one of the engineers that helps make high speed rail in Michigan — long talked about but never adequately funded — a reality.

The freshman Democrat from Battle Creek is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials, committee assignments that “puts me at the table in the high speed rail discussion,” he said in a recent interview.

Schauer told Michigan Messenger that he’s had several conversations with Vice President Biden and other senior White House officials about securing for Michigan funds the administration recently set-aside for the development of high speed rail throughout the country.

The congressman also arranged discussions between Gov. Jennifer Granholm, officials at the Michigan Department of Transportation and U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to discuss Michigan’s place in the high-speed rail push.

One of the first things Schauer said he did on his first day on the job in January was to have a discussion with U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) — who he called “a champion of high speed rail” — about high speed rail in Michigan. A majority of the Michigan section of track on the Chicago-Detroit Amtrak corridor lies in the two congressman’s districts, which combined extends from Lake Michigan east to the outskirts of Ann Arbor.

“This is a high priority for me,” Schauer said of high speed rail in the state. “My [committee assignments] puts me in contact with the rail community. I’m optimistic about our chances.”

Citing the job creation, long-term positive economic impact and environmentally-friendly aspects of high-speed rail, the Obama administration said it plans to invest $13 billion in federal money — $8 billion in stimulus funds this year and an additional $1 billion per year over the next five years — for the development of high-speed rail infrastructure in 10 corridors around the country, but mostly in areas east of the Mississippi River.

Another reason to be optimistic, Schauer said, is that the state — and region — already has a high-speed rail plan in place.

A proposal to increase the speed limit of trains has been debated since the early 2000s, when railroad officials and governors from nine states, including Michigan, participated in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative. They sought to improve and update railroad infrastructure and increase passenger train speeds on some lines to 110 mph, including rail from Chicago to Detroit.

“The potential economic benefits of high-speed rail to Michigan are tremendous,” said Upton. “We are working together as a bipartisan delegation and in coordination with Governor Granholm to ensure that the Detroit-to-Chicago corridor is of utmost priority.”

The initiative is a $3.4 billion multi-phase plan with Chicago as the central hub, and it would include 3,000 miles of current rail lines for trains traveling 110 mph. The first phase would include the Amtrak line that links Chicago, Detroit and Pontiac.

Having a plan in place “increases our position,” Schauer said. “We’re in a good position.”

But after a report on the initiative was released in 2004, state transportation departments had difficulty securing funding to make the plan a reality. Now officials are hoping the billions set aside will inject new life into the plan.

But Michigan is already home to one stretch of high-speed rail.

Building on prior investments in infrastructure in the Chicago to Detroit corridor by the state, Amtrak and other parties, a pilot project has allowed speeds of 90 mph on a 43-mile stretch between Kalamazoo and Niles since January 2002, and 95 mph since September 2005. Final testing is under way for approval to increase speeds to 110 mph in the near future, MDOT officials said. It is the only stretch of track outside of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor where trains can reach such speeds. Most of that railroad right of way is controlled by Amtrak.

In most other parts of the country, Amtrak must vie with freight rail, which usually gets priority over inter-city passenger rail, which can lead to big delays, like the ones that lead to the situation involving a Grand Rapids-bound Amtrak train from Chicago that was stranded during a blizzard in Holland last December. That 16-hour ordeal wasn’t caused necessarily because of weather, but because the train was initially delayed in Indiana to let a freight train go by. By the time the train made it to Holland hours behind schedule, Amtrak’s rail crew had already worked its maximum number of mandated hours, and passengers had to wait for a fresh crew to finish the final 30 miles to Grand Rapids.

As momentum builds at the federal level to make high-speed rail work in the Midwest, there are still many details at the state-level that need to be worked out. “It’s hard to know what is exactly going to happen right now,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “The rules haven’t been laid out yet. States are working on it.”

The rules should be drafted by late May or early June, Harnish said. After that, applications for portions of the $8 billion would be due in August and money would start flowing in September, he said. Funds would be used to improve stretches of track to enable high-speed train travel and to purchase additional track right-of-way and updated rail car rolling stock.

“This is huge, it’s really huge,” Harnish said of the president’s announcement. “We’re happy to see it.”

And although he said he couldn’t speak specifically to how much money Michigan might receive for high-speed rail projects, he did say that the Midwest region stands to receive “a substantial amount of the funds.”

“A third of the nation’s population lives within a 500-mile radius of Chicago,” he said.

Friday, May 8, 2009

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