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Monday, 16 April 2012 10:59

Kalamazoo as Chicago exurb? Experts hope high-speed rail would closely link SW Michigan to Chicago

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Kalamazoo as Chicago exurb? Experts hope high-speed rail would closely link SW Michigan to Chicago PHOTO: AMTRAK

KALAMAZOO — Imagine what Southwest Michigan would be like if it were really a bedroom community for Chicago. That could happen if a proposed high-speed rail project falls into place, but experts caution it could be years before it takes shape.

Amtrak announced recently that it received federal approval to increased speeds to 110 mph on a section of track between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind. Amtrak Communications Director Mark Magliri said the improvements would take roughly 10 to 20 minutes out of the current schedules.

“The more attractive the service, the more attractive the area that is serviced becomes,” he said.

Basically, if transportation is more efficient, people will be more inclined to make a trip and spend money. Magliri said he expects the number of trains to increase as the ridership rises.

“Frequencies are more important than travel times,” he said. “As connections are solved between Chicago and Porter, we will be able to add those frequencies.”

Ron KitchensSome economic developers say the promise of high-speed rail between Chicago and Kalamazoo is that it could make it feasible for commuters to live in Southwest Michigan and work in metro Chicago. If Kalamazoo were to become a feasible extra-urban commuter town, that would be a game-changer for the region, said Ron Kitchens, president and CEO of Southwest Michigan First.

What stands in the way of Southwest Michigan forging closer ties to Chicagoland is the completion of a high-speed line between Porter, Ind. and the Indiana-Illinois border.

With Michigan’s plans finalized and work already in progress in Michigan and Illinois, Indiana remains the key player between the two states on the Kalamazoo-to-Chicago rail corridor. Southwest Michigan, in particular, is waiting on Indiana to move to secure funding, but the state’s conservative leadership is wary of accepting federal funds.

Still, any benefits will likely be on hold unless Indiana decides it wants to upgrade its track to allow for a high-speed connector between the Michigan and Illinois borders.

“There are still questions that need to be answered,” said Will Wingfield, public information director Indiana Department of Transportation. “The homework on agreements and other studies still has to be done.”

Wingfield said INDOT is in discussions every other week with track owner Norfolk Southern and the Federal Rail Commission to put an agreement in place that will allow projects to move forward between Chicago and Kalamazoo. He said the question of who is going to ultimately pay for the projects is not completely clear and INDOT has to be careful to consider the cost and benefits.

“Providing efficient public transportation to the taxpayers at a low cost is something we take very seriously,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Grand Rapids all have rail improvement projects in different stages of construction — the economic potential of which is still unrealized as some links have not been made and as other pieces fall slowly into place.

“The projects going on now are just a small part of a larger issue,” said Larry Karnes, MDOT state rail plan project manager. “This will likely be a 10- to 15-year build out.”

One major factor to the success of the Kalamazoo-to-Chicago rail plan will be securing the cooperation of both public and private entities. As the those partnerships begin to flesh themselves out, economic development outfits such as Southwest Michigan First are trying drum up continued community and stakeholder support.

“A lot of people go immediately to airlines,” Kitchens said.

Many travelers, buoyed by announcement like Southwest Airline’s decision to expand operations in Grand Rapids, are singularly focused air travel over passenger rail initiatives, Kitchens said.

“One of things we haven’t done is treated rail as more of that kind of tertiary transportation strategy, particularly from Kalamazoo to Chicago,” he said.

In essence, a high-speed rail connection from Kalamazoo to Chicago could do for Southwest Michigan what previous rail projects did for the northern suburbs of Chicago, extending the wealth generation as well as the social and cultural engagement strategy of the city’s hub.

“It makes great sense for us to hitch our wagon to that economic engine,” he said. “Companies locate where good commuter patterns are.”

The new elevated rail project in Chicago that broke ground last fall — though still three to four years out ­— will give the West Michigan region a chance to become part of one of the largest urban centers in the country, Kitchens said. What is left to do now is for local leaders to be aggressive and continue to try to access federal transportation dollars, he said.

The Michigan Department of Transportation in January released a finalized state rail plan that assesses funding for 140 projects for passenger and freight rail needs over the next 20 years.

The plan outlines four options and recommends the “good” investment package, with a total cost of $7.2 billion, an investment that requires $2.6 billion in funding to complete. Using federal grants as the primary source of funds, the state would still need to identify other sources of money to be able to complete the infrastructure upgrades and additions.

After the Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009, the state received an $8 billion allocation to fund intercity high-speed rail projects.

MDOT’s Karnes said there has been a fairly steady stream of grant money for passenger rail projects over the years. He said he expects many of the projects will involve public/private partnerships if they are to go beyond the basic improvements.

Part of the state rail plan outlines a feasibility study for a proposed intermodal freight terminal in the Grand Rapids region. The terminal would allow for increased loading and unloading of freight cars with the potential for some area companies to reduce trucking costs, increase transport capacity and widen market reach.

However, the public sentiment swings more toward high-speed passenger rail than it does toward freight. People seem quick to grasp that more people using high-speed rail would translate into less traffic for the roads and highways between Chicago and Kalamazoo and elsewhere.

 

Read 5159 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 August 2012 09:51

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