LANSING, Mich. (Lansing State Journal) -- The Michigan Department of Transportation will study the viability of a passenger railroad line that would connect Holland to Detroit by way of Grand Rapids and Lansing.
The rail line may never materialize, but the study is the first official step by the state to create a new rail line connecting Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit. Currently, those cities are served by Amtrak through three separate passenger lines that originate or end in Chicago, Detroit, Grand Rapids or Port Huron but they are not directly connected.
"I would characterize this as the first step to even determine the viability/feasibility of such a service and by no means does this mean that we're going to see rail passenger service running between these communities in any time frame," said Tim Hoeffner, director of MDOT's Office of Rail.
The study was mandated in the state's fiscal 2015 budget that starts Oct 1. It requires MDOT to submit a report to lawmakers by May 1, 2015.
Hoeffner said MDOT would likely hire a consultant to study socioeconomics in the communities along the proposed route and how people move between the cities to help determine potential ridership. If the study finds interest, Hoeffner said it would take "many, many years" and an allocation from the Legislature to build the line.
But Dan Sommerville, policy associate at the Michigan Environmental Council, said the route could be a natural choice for people looking for alternatives to road travel.
"Essentially, Detroit and Grand Rapids are the two largest metropolitan areas in the state and right in the middle of that is our state capital, and the only mode of transportation between those is a highway," Sommerville said.
Rail ridership is on the rise. According to MDOT statistics, ridership on Amtrak lines in Michigan had climbed from 589,142 passengers in 1994 to 795,996 passengers last year. So far in 2014, 297,450 passengers have traveled Michigan railways.
The 2014 figures include 74,409 paseengers on the Blue Water line that connects Port Huron to Chicago, with a stop in East Lansing; 37,640 on the The Pere Marquette line that connects Grand Rapids to Chicago; and 185,401 passengers on the Wolverine, which connects to Detroit to Chicago.
Sommerville also said more than a dozen colleges and universities are within walking distance along the proposed route. That's a potential gold mine of ridership as students travel home from college or travel among schools.
"This could be something that helps stem that brain drain and keep young people here," along with other economic benefits and the aid to environment by having fewer cars on the highway, Sommerville said.
Hoeffner and Sommerville said residents had shown interest in a Grand Rapids-to-Lansing-to-Detroit line when MDOT sought public comment on its rail plan in 2010 and 2011. The Environmental Council, in partnership with the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, helped MDOT gather input through public forums held around the state.
Sommerville said a passenger line operated between Grand Rapids and Detroit, through Lansing, until 1971. He said tracks exist along that route that are currently used by freight trains and those tracks could be upgraded to handle the faster passenger cars.
Sommerville said he's optimistic the route could be built because "MDOT's taking an increased interested in passenger rail." He pointed to the department's recent purchase of and upgrades to rail line between Kalamazoo and Dearborn.
Amtrak, the national railroad that runs passenger lines for the state, would be interested in taking on the new line "if it made sense for both of us," spokesman Marc Magliari said Marc Magilari, a spokesman for the Washington-based railroad.