— Railroad lovers, transportation employees, curious residents and elected officials all turned out to give their take on the future path railroad transportation should take in Genesee County and regionwide.
Roughly 60 residents, including State Rep. Lee Gonzales, D-Flint Twp., Grand Blanc Township Supervisor Mikki Hoffman, and 51st House District candidate Art Reyes, showed up to the Michigan By Rail forum at the Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) headquarters.
The Sept. 30 event was hosted by the Michigan Environmental council and Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers meant to stimulate thought on what direction rail service should take in the future of Michigan.
Tim Fischer, deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said 16 talks are being held statewide to get input from residents on how they would like to see rail service take place across the state. He said Gonzales was instrumental in bringing the discussion to the local area.
Gonzales, a member of the appropriations committee, said the state was behind on its initiative and focus for the future when it received just $40 million in stimulus funds for a possible high speed rail system. The federal government has set aside $8 billion to fund high speed rail service across the United States.
Fischer said the state is much better prepared for a second round, with awards to be announced in the near future. Award money was to have been announced last week, but no word has been given on the amount of funds to be received by the state.
Residents used the meeting to share their thoughts on where the money should be spent and tracks laid, outlining maps with paths to Chicago, Toledo, Ontario, as well as parts of Northern Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, Detroit and western Michigan areas.
Jim Slater, a member of the Blue Water Coalition and caretaker for the Lapeer Amtrack Station, said he hears a lot of discussion about travel from rail passengers. The most common thing he overhears about is the direction of travel, such as “Why do I have to go west to go east?,” with many passengers having to travel to Chicago before having the ability to venture to areas east and south.
“People want a more direct north/south train to travel,” he said. Other voices during the event said they would like service to more parts of northern Michigan, or even a trail line into the Upper Peninsula. Some argued a line stretching into areas that far north may not work, with population dense areas such as Grand Rapids, Detroit, Ann Arbor, and other areas more likely to be able to maintain enough passengers to be fiscally solvent.
Gonzales, who cannot run again for state representative due to terms limits in his current state position, said the whole decision comes down to money, and there may not be enough in the current or future budget to evoke much change.
“I have learned in this short six year period that it’s all about the money,” he told the crowd. “And, when it’s not about the money. It’s about the money.”