Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Train subsidies on track – for now

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By JORDAN TRAVIS
Capital News Service

LANSING – Passengers on both state-funded Amtrak routes will get at least nine more months of train service.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s approval of the $3.25 billion transportation budget ensures the Pere Marquette and Blue Water lines will receive $5.7 million. That’s $1.4 million less than last year, although the possibility of receiving supplemental funds remains.

Alan Bolter, the chief of staff for Sen. Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood, said that the two routes will likely need legislative action to cover more than nine months of service.

The Blue Water train, which makes a trip from Port Huron to Chicago and back every day, carried 136,500 passengers between October 2007 and September 2008. The Pere Marquette, which makes a trip from Grand Rapids to Chicago and back every day, had 111,700 riders in the same period.

Janet Foran, a Department of Transportation (MDOT) press officer, said that the state’s two routes were in a similar situation last year.

Foran said the routes had received $6.4 million, enough money to run from October 2007 to the end of June 2008. The Legislature provided an additional $400,000 to support the trains through the end of October 2008.

Since the end of September, both the Pere Marquette and the Blue Water have been running without a contract between Amtrak and MDOT. Foran explained that this kind of “running on faith” is not uncommon, and Amtrak assumes that it will eventually be paid for its services.

Ken Braun is a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center, a free market-oriented research group based in Midland. He said Amtrak is “a luxury that Michigan taxpayers simply can’t afford right now.”

Although he said funding for Amtrak contributes to only a small amount of the state deficit, it is one of “many, many examples of things we need to pull back on in order to balance our budget.”

Some passenger trains make a profit, he said, “and if Michigan trains aren’t doing that, people should look to less costly transportation alternatives,” such as buses and cars.

Both train routes had seen a rise in ridership over the previous year, but the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP), in Livonia, reported that a slow economy caused a slight decrease in the first half of 2009.
John Langdon, the chair of the West Michigan Chapter of MARP and a Holland resident, said that the Legislature explored the option of cutting train service down to three days per week, a move the state tried in the past with the Pere Marquette.

It was a disaster, and it hurt tourism to and from Holland because “people didn’t know what day the train was running,” he said. “When you don’t have train service seven days a week, that can be affected.”

Steve Bulthuis, the transportation program manager for the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council in Holland, said the change to the Pere Marquette line schedule was made in October 1994 because of insufficient funding. Daily service was reinstated in October 1995. Ridership had dropped significantly, he said, and didn’t return to normal levels for a few years.

Michigan has three train routes. Unlike the Pere Marquette and the Blue Water, the Wolverine, which makes three round trips daily between Plymouth to Chicago and through Detroit, receives federal funding.

Holland had 40,463 passengers get on and off the Pere Marquette between October 2007 and September 2008, according to Amtrak figures.

The Pere Marquette’s 25th year in service started on Aug. 5, and the Blue Water’s 30th year begins later this month.

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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