On Thursday, June 2, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced Thursday in Michigan $368 million in rail infrastructure and safety grants to 46 projects in 32 states, with about $30 million flowing to Michigan.
On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Peter Anastor, who directs the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Rail, talks about the economic benefits to the rail companies and businesses they serve.
Buttigieg made the case for the grants in an op/ed published in the Detroit Free Press:
President Biden tasked us with strengthening our supply chains, speeding the movement of people and goods, increasing production, and helping usher in newer, cleaner and cheaper energy - all of which will lower costs for families. And thanks to the president’s historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we have the resources we need to do just that.
The grants include $21.3 million for a proposed project to improve track and rail assets operated by the Great Lakes Central Railroad just north of Ann Arbor, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
The second grant of up to $8.7 million will go to the West Michigan Railroad Co. to pay for infrastructure improvements on roughly 10 miles of track in southwest Michigan.
Anastor also discusses other exciting improvements going on with passenger rail service in Michigan, including ongoing enhancements on the Detroit-Chicago corridor to increase speeds to 110 mph. Elsewhere, advocacy continues for Traverse City-to-Ann Arbor passenger rail service.
Jeff Cranson: Hi, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson.
Cranson: This week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced, in Michigan, the 368 million dollars in rail infrastructure and safety grants would flow to 46 projects in 32 states. About 30 million dollars is flowing to Michigan. The grants include 21.3 million for a proposed project to rehabilitate track and rail assets operated by the Great Lakes Central Railroad, just north of Ann Arbor. And the second grant is about 9 million dollars for the West Michigan Railroad Company to pay for infrastructure improvements on roughly 10 miles of track in southwest Michigan. And meanwhile, there are some other exciting things going on with passenger rail service in Michigan. So, here today to talk about all this, and what we can expect in the future, is Peter Anastor, who is the Director of the Office of Rail at MDOT. Peter, thank you for taking time to do this.
Peter Anastor: Yeah, absolutely, Jeff. It's great to be here.
Cranson: So, start first with these grants, and what they mean on these freight lines.
Anastor: Yeah, we're absolutely excited to be notified that we were awarded these two grants here in Michigan. One of them is a partnership between MDOT and one of our freight operators on some of the lines that the state of Michigan owns. And it's really going to have a big impact; it's about a 42 million dollar investment overall. And to your point, it's really going to be a benefit to our companies here in Michigan, and how we efficiently move freight. The work is mostly happening in an area between Ann Arbor, Michigan and Owosso, and it's just going to make some significant improvements on that infrastructure, looking at a new rail, some new ties. It's going to rehabilitate or replace 11 bridges and culverts on that line. And what those investments do is really help to make that line run more efficiently, and trains can operate at higher speeds, and really that's all a benefit to the whole freight network, but especially the companies that directly utilize that rail to really connect to the larger US network. So, that is something that's really exciting for us here at MDOT. We're excited—it's a 21 million dollar investment by the federal government. So to be able to leverage that kind of money here in Michigan to assist our companies and our railroads, that's really great for us.
Cranson: Can you explain that ownership arrangement with the track; how it is that the state owns it, and what the relationship is with those rail companies?
Anastor: Yeah, absolutely. So, the state owns about 635 miles of track here in Michigan. And some of that's freight related, and some of it's our Michigan line where we run our Amtrak passenger service. But a majority is freight related, and what we have is basically four operators that we have agreements with to basically operate freight railroads on those lines. So, Great Lakes Central is the railroad that operates on the line in which you receive the federal grant funding. And they are the operator on the largest portion of our Michigan owned rail, and a really good partner. And they are actually investing in this project as well. So not only are we leveraging federal dollars, but MDOT's putting up some match, and Great Lakes Central is also providing some funds towards this project as well. So, it's really a great partnership, and it's a way that those companies that are really the operating railroads and do that best, that they can do what they do and use our lines to really serve the companies that are located on those parts of the state.
Cranson: Yes, could you talk a little bit about what some of those companies do, and what kinds of goods are being hauled?
Anastor: Yeah, absolutely. So, that line in particular is a lot of aggregate materials and agriculture materials. A great example of a project is a company called Zeeland Farm Services up in Ithaca, Michigan. And they basically invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a new soybean processing plant here in Michigan a few years ago. And they are now a direct customer of Great Lakes Central and are served by that railroad on Michigan owned lines. And that plant really processes a significant amount of Michigan soybeans, and then convert that into products that are shipped out by rail and really go throughout the country. A lot of it goes to the southeast United States. So, having this this infrastructure and these investments, again, just make the logistics of moving items on rail even that much more efficient. So, that's one great example of some of the companies that are served on this rail line.
Cranson: Yeah, and they're a huge farm production company based in New Zealand, obviously, with that big facility in Ithaca you talked about. And MDOT has worked with them on some other things, including interchanges and road improvements, too. So that's a really good example. On top of what you're talking about with the support that your office administers for freight, which is very important, it's kind of one of those things that had its time, and then somewhat dissipated with the advent and the growth of the trucking industry and the interstate system and superhighways. But in recent years, freight rail has been kind of reinvented and rediscovered as important to a lot of industries. But we're also heavily invested in passenger rail. And, as you know, when the federal stimulus came around in the Obama administration, a lot of states said they're not going to take that federal money for enhanced passenger speeds. Wisconsin said no, Ohio said no, Florida said no. But the republican administration in Michigan said, heck yeah. We'll take that money; we think that's really important economic development and getting faster service between Chicago and Detroit. And it's got all kinds of bipartisan support. It was a republican who Obama appointed as his first director of the Department of Transportation, his first secretary Ray LaHood. And he was a huge rail fan, and he was in Michigan to make those announcements. So, where do things stand with that 110 mile per hour service?
Anastor: Yeah, we're really making some strides in fulfilling our goal for 110 service throughout that Detroit Pontiac to Chicago corridor. In last May, so about a year ago, we initiated the first segment of speeds up to 110 on the Michigan owned service between Kalamazoo and Albion. And again, that was a big milestone. We're completing some infrastructure work on other segments of that line, and I think we'll be fully up to 110 probably by 2024. And we should be adding another segment this year, really between Albion and Jackson, that will increase speeds once we get some testing completed; that needs is a requirement before we can run at those speeds. But that's just one of those spaces where Michigan has been a leader, especially on the passenger rail side. And Michigan is the only state out of the northeast corridor that runs at speeds up to 110 miles per hour. And it's, you've been on the train, Jeff, and I mean, it's a pretty smooth ride; it's pretty amazing how fast you can move at those speeds but still really have a comfortable ride. And I think it was important for us, just from passenger rail and to be in that competitiveness of, how do we offer this traveling public here in Michigan an alternative from air and alternative from having to get in their car and drive to Detroit or Chicago? And having speeds and the investments we've made here in Michigan to accomplish that is really going to be a benefit to all the passengers that use rail. And I would really encourage people to give it a shot and to take that experience and see for themselves what it's like to ride Amtrak nowadays at those speeds and with some of the other investments that we're making. I think it's going to be a big impact to riders and their rider experience, and I think they'll be very pleased with that experience for sure.
Cranson: Well, I can tell you that my friends in Grand Rapids and the Holland area are very eager for this to become part of the plan for the Pierre Marquette as well because as it is now, you can either do that or really just about save the time by driving to Kalamazoo and getting on the Wolverine there, which I've done more than once. So it's very exciting as this spreads across the state. What do you see as the future? I mean, you're making some purchases for rail cars, which is kind of a cool thing, and will also enhance that experience. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Anastor: Yeah we, in the past couple weeks here, actually, we've just launched our new venture passenger rail cars in Michigan. And this, again, is another kind of innovative thing in the Midwest where we've partnered with Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri to really purchase new passenger rail car equipment that Amtrak operates for us. And these new cars have been in the works for several years here, and they're now starting to go into service. They're on three lines throughout the Midwest and here in Michigan. They're operating on our Detroit to Chicago line. But really vast improvements over the cars that we had been using which are about 40 years old: much bigger windows, wider aisles in the cars, obviously more technology, enhanced wi-fi. So just, so many improvements that we can bring to the riders here in Michigan, and that's just one example of some of those investments that are being made to really improve and compete. And those cars will be deployed on all our services here in Michigan. So, the Wolverine service, the Blue Water, and the Pierre Marquette. It'll probably really take us over the next year or so to get those cars on all the consist here in Michigan, but really something that's really exciting for us, and again, should be a huge benefit for our riders here in Michigan.
Cranson: Will this include more opportunities to take your bikes on the train?
Anastor: Yes, that's a great point. Each car is equipped with a bike rack now. So, it's a really easy to use system; you basically just hang your bike, and you can take it with you to wherever you're traveling. That's a big enhancement. There's improved luggage space as well for customers. So, those are a couple of other big improvements on these new cars that we haven't had before.
Cranson: Yeah, my goodness, if you go from anywhere in Michigan and end up in Chicago with your bike, there's all kinds of opportunities there, and the same coming back this way. Most of those cities that are on the line have some pretty cool trails and opportunities to ride not far from those stations.
Anastor: Yeah, absolutely. And I think part of the rail vision is how do we connect with other modes of transportation, both through our stations and in the whole rail network. So biking, I’m a big biker, and I think that's a big component of what we want to do is make sure that people have those opportunities and feel comfortable intersecting different modes of transportation. That's a big part of, I think, what MDOT’s trying to do here in the future.
Cranson: We'll be right back, stay tuned.
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Cranson: Well, something else that has bipartisan support is this concept of a passenger rail line between Traverse City and Ann Arbor. Senator Wayne Schmidt of Traverse City is a huge fan, huge advocate. He's working closely with others there that want to see it happen. It's always kind of a, “if you build it they will come” mentality, but it's also difficult to know for sure. I mean, it's been hard enough just to get a commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit. I don't want to put you on the spot too much here, but what's your thought long term about this?
Anastor: Yeah, I think there's so much discussion, Jeff, right now on what opportunities there are in the future. And I think Michigan, we're looking at everything. So, how do we improve and expand our existing services that we run? We'd like to add more frequencies to those lines. There's been talk of maybe extending some routes. I know Toronto is mentioned quite often as maybe a new connection and even an Amtrak route that runs easterly. So, maybe a Detroit to Cleveland or something like that. And Ann Arbor to Traverse City is part of those discussions as well is, what does the future hold, and how do we best serve our customers here in Michigan.
Cranson: So yeah, Peter, on that Traverse City to Ann Arbor concept, I think one of the downsides or one of the things that skeptics cite is that when I get to Traverse City, I didn't mean that as my final destination, I just mean the Traverse City area. And if I don't have a car, what am I going to do? And thanks to the great people, Julie Clark is a friend of the department at Tart Trails, and they've got an extensive and growing network of trails in Grand, Traverse, and Leelanau counties. So, if you take your bike, you do have some opportunities. But still, is that part of what you think holds back some people from committing to this; that idea that I’m going to go from one or the other and not have a car when I get there?
Anastor: Yeah, I think that's a really important consideration because we Michiganders talk about up north, right. And for a lot of us, that's way more than Traverse City. And I think those are the things, again, we talked about some of those linkages. How do we link different transportation modes together? And I think that's a question that really needs to be looked at. Who are we serving with these rail lines, who are the customers? Traverse City in and of itself is not a hugely populated area when you look at it compared to Detroit or Grand Rapids or some of the other communities that are endpoints for rail service here in Michigan or even throughout the country. So I think looking at the, who's the ridership, and what do those riders need to successfully and repeatedly use that rail line and have that experience. So I think those are big questions to think about. I think another one is, who's going to operate a service, right? Is it Amtrak, is it some sort of new authority? Who's really going to stand up every year in and year out and really take the lead on the operation? So, there's definitely questions that need to be answered to make any of these rail projects successful. And that one's really no different. So, those are things we're really looking at closely right now and working with our partners and stakeholders to really determine what's feasible, what's sustainable. How much funding do we have to come up to really make these projects a reality? How do you sustain the operating cost of those over time? Some of them is even, who's going to operate those lines, right?
Cranson: Maybe there's an opportunity to really please that growing demographic of baseball combination rail fans like myself, so we could have a central service, and we could go to Minneapolis, Chicago—
Anastor: Yeah and Cleveland, that'd be tremendous. I think you can get to Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City now. The Cleveland might be the new one we need to get added to the list. So, I think it is thinking about the future, and how we leverage these federal opportunities that are going to be in front of us for the next few years. And how do we continue to build that passenger rail service in Michigan, and what that means with looking at existing routes and expanding those, and extending or growing routes, or a totally new route. Those are all decisions and opportunities that are in front of us, and we're going to have to chart that course coming up here in the next few years.
Cranson: Everything in transportation requires a lot of patience, nothing more than rail. So, that kind of brings me to my final point. Talk a little bit about your background. You've been in this job for a couple years, and you were obviously interested in it. You did other things in the economic development realm. But knowing that it was going to take patience and there were a lot of challenges, not knowing that there was going to be a pandemic. But talk a little bit about what got you into this.
Anastor: Yeah, I think it's, my background is really from an economic development standpoint, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of businesses and thinking about how they move freight, how they connect to the global economy. And I’ve also had opportunities to do a lot of community development work and work with communities. And I think this, the rail position is just fascinating because you can really cover both of those areas. And that was something that was important to me. Michigan really has some amazing infrastructure assets. As far as our highway infrastructure and our rail infrastructure and our airports and our Great Lakes and in the potential of those. So, we're really an amazingly unique state as far as our transportation assets. And I think the one piece that we continue to need to work on is how do we bring all those systems together and really create the most efficient and holistic system we can here in Michigan to serve our companies, to serve our citizens, and transportation needs. So, that's really what interested me in it. I think it's really a plus for me that I get to think about the freight side and the passenger side. I know some of my peers in other states are maybe more focused just on one of those elements. But to have that opportunity to look at Michigan and these great assets that we have, and how do we continue to make those things better is really what appealed to me. So it's exciting, I’m still learning every day, Jeff, about railroading, and how it works and Amtrak and kind of the uniqueness of that entity. And even about MDOT and some of the things that we do within the department. But the future's bright and exciting, and I think rail's only going to become more important as our population and economy continues to grow. And I think being right in the middle of that's really been a great opportunity for me.
Cranson: Yeah, well said. I think you're right about all those things, and I think you've probably discovered that there are some pretty passionate people involved in the world of rail.
Anastor: [laughing] Absolutely, yeah. We hear from them every day.
Cranson: [laughing] Well thank you, Peter. This has been enlightening and a helpful conversation. Your first visit to the podcast, but I’m sure you'll be back. So, thank you very much.
Anastor: Yeah, thank you, Jeff. And any time you wanna talk rail, I’m happy to do it, so look forward to more conversations in the future.
Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.