CADILLAC — In the fall of 2017, the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a nonprofit located in Traverse City commissioned a study to examine the feasibility of passenger rail service via a route running from Ann Arbor to Traverse City under a project titled "A2TC."

Now, that study is nearing completion.

Transportation Economics and Management Systems, a Maryland-based consultant working with Groundworks on A2TC, has been studying the rail corridor and is expecting to be finished by mid-June. Its results will be presented by Groundwork at public engagements and will offer insight into the future of rail travel and its economic benefits in Northern Michigan.

The study has been looking at the potential number of passengers, tourism growth and whether tracks need to be upgraded to handle trains traveling at high speeds.

Preliminary analysis from TEMS is already indicating it’;s possible to develop a rail system competitive with car travel arriving from downstate. One of the key drivers for this feasibility is the growth of visitors coming into Traverse City and Petoskey.

Alex Metcalf, president of TEMS, said around 6 million people travel to Traverse City and Petoskey annually, which is expected to double over the next 30 years.

“I looked at the figures and said ‘Really, how could this be?’; Six million visitors? That’;s like Disney, really,‘ Metcalf said.

While no specific details have been released describing how this will affect Cadillac, Metcalf said it would certainly have a positive effect.

“We anticipate good financial and economic returns. We haven't got precise numbers, but it looks good,‘ Metcalf said.

Traverse City and other locations up north are popular summer destinations, but Cadillac may have special attraction during winter months, Metcalf said. He anticipates Cadillac’;s proximity and access to skiing resorts such as Caberfae could drive rail ridership.

But why would travelers give up their cars to travel by train? Metcalf said increasing highway congestion and rising oil prices in the long term will drive more people to transportation alternatives. 

There is also growing skepticism in urban planning of designing transportation solely around automobiles. Studies and policy briefs from state transportation departments around the country, including California, have shown that adding capacity to roadways fails to alleviate congestion.

But more than being a cost, and patience-saving measure for tourists passing through the area, the project is also framed as a way to boost local economies.

“It will help every city with a station,‘ Metcalf said. “Somewhere like Cadillac could benefit from service and substantial economic development boost to the city. Not just train service now, but development in downtown, where these services encourage services to develop and locate around the station, stimulated by increased travel associated with people getting off and on having Starbucks. Offices, commercial development and retail and also even potential housing and condos around the station are possible.‘

While permanent rail service is years away, special excursions are expected to begin running along the route by summer 2019.

While cities like Traverse City and Petoskey have been highlighted, other communities on the route haven’;t had the same chance to learn about the project.

Once the study’;s findings are released, the next step will be to reach out to the cities along the proposed route.

Cadillac City Manager Marcus Peccia said he’;s been aware of conversation regarding special commuter rail for years.

“There’;s a desire to increase the transportation options for folks to visit our neck of the woods,‘ Peccia said. “Certainly Cadillac, due to its proximity and location on the line, we would hope for it to be a stopping point. We’;re looking forward to learning more about the status of the project. It would be wonderful to welcome visitors to our community.‘

Metcalf said Groundwork and TEMS will be making a public presentation in the near future and show them what benefits could be coming and how to move the project forward, which would include integrating a passenger rail terminal into their master plans.

TEMS has worked on other passenger rail projects, such as Project Midwest, a regional rail initiative that included developing the transit corridor from Chicago to Detroit and the Ohio Hub, which was a five-state effort that looked at developing a passenger rail system between Columbus, Cleveland and Detroit.

The organization also has spearheaded efforts to expand rail service in Boston and Washington D.C.

A large part of the study’;s analysis is based on previous studies, such as Project Midwest, which examined virtually all of the Lower Peninsula from 1995 to 2012.

Metcalf said after the study is released and publicized, the next phase will be for Groundwork to work with cities to raise awareness and funding.

“One of the things we would like to see is getting cities heavily involved in planning work,‘ Metcalf said. “This doesn’;t get done without communities.‘