High-speed rail would get Michigan’s economy back on track

Michigan led the automobile to prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s. But now we are losing more and more ground in the new economy. If we hope to catch up, one of the answers must be high-speed rail.

That’s why it’s disappointing to see Michigan’s efforts toward high-speed rail service languish, as the federal government funds similar projects elsewhere in the Midwest, as well as in states like California and Florida.

Yes, Ann Arbor and the state as a whole will benefit from the $244 million in federal stimulus funds announced last month. This money will improve the existing Amtrak service between Detroit and Chicago, which stops in Ann Arbor. We welcome any federal investment in rail service, but these improvements will not bring Michigan closer to its goal of high-speed rail service.

If Michigan is to regain its competitiveness for new industries and 21st century jobs, it cannot afford to lag the country on an issue as important as high-speed rail. The state’s vision for fast, convenient, and reliable rail service between Detroit and Chicago is set out in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a plan that has been in operation since the mid-1990s.

To understand how Ann Arbor’s future economic health is tied to high-speed rail, consider the case of Menlo Innovations, a local high-tech company that has experienced rapid revenue growth over the past five years, despite the downturn in the economy. Menlo CEO Rich Sheridan said the high-speed rail would be a boon to his company, helping him generate more business in the Chicago market and helping him hire talented employees who are attracted to areas that have good public transport.

The current Detroit-to-Chicago service is one of the busiest in the country outside of the East Coast, carrying 472,000 passengers in fiscal year 2008. Ann Arbor was Michigan’s busiest stop on the route. But the journey takes five and a half hours, and the service is not frequent or reliable enough.

Super-fast 220mph rail service is not achievable in the immediate future, but 110mph service would be. The Midwest Rail Initiative’s goal is to cut Detroit-Chicago travel time by nearly two hours and run nine trains a day. This would make the service much more viable for business and leisure travel, and create new economic opportunities for communities along the corridor, generating both construction and permanent employment.

The Detroit-Chicago route has some inherent advantages for future high-speed rail. Existing track condition is among the best in the nation, and the 97 miles of track Amtrak owns between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind., is the longest stretch of track the company owns outside of the northeast.

The investment required for high-speed rail would be substantial – in the billions. It’s expensive, just as it was expensive to build the infrastructure to support the auto industry that has enriched Michigan for decades. We now find ourselves in a Rust Belt state struggling to compete with more prosperous regions. A failure to develop high-speed rail will make us even less competitive.

Last year, the state requested up to $800 million in federal funding for high-speed rail. We must continue to push for a share of the federal investment in this important form of public transit. Communities like Ann Arbor must demonstrate strong support for high-speed rail, and citizens should urge state and federal lawmakers to support funding for the service.

Because Michigan’s economy has been so dependent on the automobile industry, the development of public transit has lagged here. We can’t let our love of cars blind us to the importance that fast, convenient and reliable public transit will play in the economy of the future.

At a time when we have the highest unemployment rate in the nation and lead the nation in population loss, we might wonder what has happened to Michigan? The better question is what should Michigan become and how do we get there? The answers are not easy, but one of the ways to get there would be to use the high-speed train.