Rail rider spike has promise

Guest Editorial
Train travel isn’t Michigan’s first choice, but there is new evidence the option is becoming more viable. The Michigan Department of Transportation reported this month that nearly 800,000 passengers used Amtrak trains in Michigan last year, record ridership for the state’s three routes.

Amtrak’s Wolverine service saw the greatest 2012 increase. The route — from Pontiac or Detroit to Chicago — carried 495,277 passengers. Pere Marquette — from Grand Rapids to Chicago — had 109,501 riders. The Blue Water route — from Port Huron to Chicago — served 187,991.

The numbers are encouraging. They come at a time when the auto industry is continuing its recovery, and they remind us of mass transportation’s value.

Granted, the miserable condition of Michigan’s roads offers strong encouragement to take the trains. Even if our roads were great, rail travel still would be attractive.

Trains are a lot better on the environment. They reduce the number of motor vehicles on the roads and the exhaust they emit. They also spare us the traffic jams and distracted drivers that are staples of a typical road trip.

The ridership numbers are good news to Michigan residents, even if they couldn’t care less about rail travel. State government is in the train business. Lansing pays $8 million a year to subsidize rail service.

Because 2012 revenue from the three routes reached a record high of $27.8 million … state support decreases as the rail service gets stronger.

There is a drawback. The Detroit News reported Saturday that the Passenger Rail Invest-
ment and Improvement Act of 2008 will force Michigan and other states to pay more money for Amtrak services.

The law shifts a federal Amtrak subsidy of about $25 million a year to Michigan to support its busiest train route, the Wolverine service. The law requires our state to start kicking in the money this year.

There’s no disputing the unfairness of this new obligation and its timing. With a variety of pressing obligations already on the table, the last thing Michigan taxpayers need is one Washington imposes.

Still, rail service in Michigan is becoming stronger. More folks are taking trains, and if the federal government can stop its meddling, someday, those routes could stand on their own.