SEMCOG gives commuter rail update to Heights council

By BOB OLIVER
Times-Herald Newspapers

HEIGHTS — It’s a few years from being implemented, but the city council was still happy to hear updates of the MiTrain commuter line in the works for southeast Michigan.

Southeast Michigan Council of Governments Director of Transportation Programs Carmine Palombo addressed the council about developments in the rail system, which will travel between Ann Arbor and Detroit, before the Sept. 24 council meeting.

Palombo said that planning for the rail along the 38-mile route has been undertaken by SEMCOG and the Michigan Department of Transportation.

He also said the coalition has leased, rehabilitated and safety-inspected 23 bi-level rail cars that it has been showcasing them at local events to show the public what the commuter compartments will look like and how deeply it is committed to the project.

“We’re building the beginnings of a system, rail- and bus-oriented, to provide a high level of service to people commuting through southeast Michigan,” Palombo said.

He added that the plan is to have five round trips a day between the cities, with stops being made in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town, in Westland at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Henry Ruff and at the new train station being built in Dearborn. The Westland stop will offer busing to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

Services are expected to begin in three years and Palombo said SEMCOG anticipates running the commuter line as a demonstration for two years to judge community interest before deciding on the whether to continue the line long term or not.

He added that the majority of feedback he has received has been in favor of the line.

“Given all the positive responses we’ve received about this project, I’m confident that there is a good amount of interest from the public in southeast Michigan,” Palombo said. “Hopefully that translates into steady traffic on the line.”

Councilwoman Lisa Hicks-Clayton said the rail would be “an investment in the future.”

“This is an exciting opportunity for our region,” Hicks-Clayton said. “It’ll be a boost in the arm for our economy.”

Councilman Thomas Berry asked about future sources of funding for the project after the first two years of operations.

Palombo said that after the first two years, SEMCOG and MDOT may hand over control of the rail to the Regional Transit Authority, which will be looking for support for a tax in the next couple years to help pay for improvement services along the rail line, which is part of the 130-mile stretch of track purchased earlier this year by the state of Michigan from Norfolk Southern.

“I know that’s not a popular thing, but that’s what it’s going to take,” Palombo said.

(Bob Oliver can be reached at boliver@bewickpublications.com.)