Connecting Traverse City to Ann Arbor via Train: Q&A with MLUI’s Jim Bruckbauer

In recent weeks a new era of modern train travel that will connect Traverse City to Ann Arbor with passenger rail has been a hot topic among Michiganders. Spearheading the Northern Michigan campaign also known as A2TC is the Michigan Land Use Institute, a Traverse City based nonprofit advocacy organization that “believes that bringing passenger rail service back to northern Michigan is possible in less than a decade…”. Why wouldn’t people exchange the stresses of fluctuating gas prices and uncertain driving weather for a ticket to unwind and enjoy the scenery of Michigan from a railcar? We checked in with Policy Specialist Jim Bruckbauer to learn how the campaign is unfolding.

Jim, why do you think train travel is making a comeback—is it a response to a need, or more a mode of leisurely transportation? Or both?

JB:  It’s making a comeback because people are driving much less and people want more transportation options, including trains.

In fact, while per-person driving in Michigan has dropped almost 7 percent since 2005, transit ridership is at its highest level since 1956. Over one-third of Michiganders are too young, too old, or are just physically or financially unable to drive. And a 2014 Rockefeller Foundation study showed that 86 percent of young people are looking for cities with public transportation—including rail—when looking for a place to live.

People are riding Amtrak trains in record numbers, especially between Chicago and Detroit, where trains are traveling 110 miles per hour on some stretches.

I’d say train travel is a trend that’s going to continue, especially as technology and mobility improve and people become less dependent on owning their own car.

Recently, MLUI hosted an inspiring event at the State Theatre to showcase the campaign. How is MLUI planning to lead this campaign, and what’s next?

JB: This is a unique opportunity because the state still owns the tracks between Traverse City and Ann Arbor and the tracks are in pretty good shape. In fact, about 90 percent of the tracks are ready for passenger service.

So we’re working with our partners around the state to build support from civic and business leaders in the cities along the line, while gathering feedback from the communities. The campaign will likely include journalism, public meetings, videography, and hopefully some demonstration train trips for special events.

MLUI’s initiative talks about boosting economic development along the corridor. More specifically how do you envision economies benefitting?

JB: The tracks between Traverse City and Ann Arbor run through some of Michigan’s greatest downtown’s like Cadillac, Mt. Pleasant, Alma, Durand and Owosso.

A 2009 Grand Valley State University study showed that Michigan towns with rail service—even just once-a-day service—had anywhere from a $7 million to $45 million boost to their local economies because of that service.

Rail would allow the residents and college students in these towns to have another option for traveling to other wonderful Michigan cities and, because it intersects with two Amtrak lines, they’ll have access to major metropolitan areas around the country.

How will this affect the tourism industry in Northern Michigan?

JB: A train connection would give visitors another option for traveling to major Michigan destinations and many wonderful cities. Imagine taking a train to the Alma Highland Festival or the Mt. Pleasant Craft Beer Festival. By the way, you can find some of Michigan’s best microbreweries within walking distance to these tracks.

What can we learn from history about how rail transportation transforms communities?

JB: Most of Michigan’s downtown’s were developed around rivers and around the railroads. Back then, the downtown’s had a mix of apartments, homes, shops, and places to work, all within walking distance to each other and the train station.

Now that cities are reinvesting in their downtown’s and their waterways, it makes sense to also reinvest in our existing rail system too. More and more people of all ages, from retirees to recent grads, want to live in walkable places again.

Now that trains are being talked about in Traverse City, what can people do to help this campaign move forward and become a reality?

JB: Our project was chosen by Patagonia and Moosejaw for a fundraising contest, so for the next two weeks, we’re competing against several other nonprofits to raise money through a crowdfunding campaign.

Learn more about the campaign at Tell Michigan leaders that you want this train to happen! Find the names of the local representatives here.