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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Commuter rail for southeast Michigan?

According to the Ann Arbor News, Michigan's share of the pork in the recent transportation bill included $100 million for studying and starting the engineering on a commuter rail system serving Chelsea, Dexter, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and several Wayne County cities on its way to Detroit. Senator Stabenow was the champion of getting the money in the transportation bill, and it is supported by Congressman Dingell and Mayor Hieftje.

I had a brief conversation with Mayor Hieftje a few months ago. He's a strong advocate of commuter rail. Ann Arbor has two rail lines running through it--the Conrail tracks running east-west from Detroit to Chicago, currently used by Amtrak and freight, and the north-south tracks of the old Ann Arbor railroad, which carry about one freight train a day (usually in the middle of the night). Both lines could support more traffic. The simplest proposal for commuter rail is just to run commuter trains on the Conrail lines, starting in Chelsea. Officials quoted in the article say this could be done in as little as a year. More elaborate light-rail plans involving new track would take much longer and cost more.

Now that not many companies are actually making cars around here anymore, maybe it will be politically possible to get this moving. Whether it can get started before the economy collapses and makes large-scale public projects completely impossible is another question. Then again, some of the grandest public works in this country's history were completed in the decade following the 1929 economic crash. Anybody see another FDR out there somewhere?