Multiple options under consideration for Michigan rail projects

Two potential rail projects are under separate consideration in the state of Michigan.

Planners with the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor last week released a draft study of a 4.78-mile light-rail system that would bring passengers from the city’s downtown to the school’s three campuses. Also last week, a study requested by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) was released that looked at a passenger rail line that would cross the state from Detroit westward to Holland. The preliminary plan for that project calls for financing it through a public-private partnership (P3).

The Ann Arbor project, called the Connector, carries a cost of between $560 million and $680 million. It’s projected to transport more than 30,000 riders a day by 2040, according to the study. The electric-powered light-rail system would operate nine stops between the northeast and south sides of Ann Arbor, traveling along US 23. It would operate on standard rail tracks. The study projects construction could start in 2025 and take about two years to complete.

University and city officials have considered many options over the years to improve travel options between the school’s campuses and the downtown area, including elevated rail, bus rapid transit and standard bus service.

“We’ve been thinking and talking for a number of years, and we are continuing to plan and talk with the city of Ann Arbor about some kind of higher capacity, high-speed connector,” University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said. “Right now, we have buses traveling on city streets, and we’ve basically saturated that.”

The costs of the second project range from $130 million up to $540 million, depending on what type of train the MDOT chooses. Trains that travel at slower speeds are cheaper than high-speed rail, due to the higher-cost infrastructure and safety measures demanded by the latter. The rail line would traverse the state, from Detroit on the eastern edge of Michigan across the state to Holland, which is on the shore of Lake Michigan. The study looked at two routes, both of which would travel through Ann Arbor and then on to Holland.

The report, which was issued by the Michigan Environmental Council, did state that high-speed rail options would deliver more revenue because they would attract more passengers and be able to charge a higher fare. Those alternatives could generate as much as $14.4 million per year in increased revenues, whereas the slower trains would not be revenue-generating and would instead have to be subsidized by the state.

A further benefit of the high-speed rail options is that the fact that there is money to be made opens the project up to potential private investment. According to the report, that revenue flow would mean that a P3 “or other innovative financing methods can be used to construct and operate the system. This absolves the local entity of any need for providing an operating subsidy but, more than this, it is not uncommon for the operating cash flow to be sufficient to cover the local match requirement as well.”

The project would take between seven and 10 years to build.