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Austin B. Smith/MEDILL

Amtrak's trip from Chicago to Detroit, which takes more than five hours, could be trimmed by more than 30 minutes.

Trains to Detroit will be faster, have more room with high(er) speed rail money Florida rejected

by Austin B. Smith
May 11, 2011

A Tea Party governor rejected high-speed rail money; Michigan and Illinois stand to gain.

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail, citing concerns of additional costs and limiting government’s reach, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder saw opportunity and sought some of the money. And he got it.

One of the projects to be funded with the money Florida rejected will be to transform 135 miles of Amtrak’s Wolverine route, which runs between Chicago and Detroit, into a higher-speed rail line, according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

This improvement, which will cost $196.5 million, will be paid for by the federal government. Trains will be able to reach speeds up to 110 mph, compared with their current top speed of 79 mph. The trip, which currently takes more than 5 hours, is expected to be more than 30 minutes shorter.

“This is not true high-speed rail by traditional definition, but it is improved,” said Megan Owens, executive director of Transit Riders United. She said a true high-speed rail, such as the one being proposed on the Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor, is far more costly.

Owens said she views the money as an investment. “Doing this now is worthwhile and will be a very substantial improvement in travel and [true high-speed is] not realistic at this point in the foreseeable future.”

Owens also said that ridership, which already has been rising in recent years, is likely to rise with the increased speed and reliability of the new trains and rails. Also, the new trains have 30 percent higher capacity, which will increase ridership at peak times.

Freight companies own a major portion of the route. A separate federal grant from 2010 offers $150 million for Michigan to buy that track, but the state would need to contribute another $30 million, and has not yet secured that money, Owens said. Freight trains get right-of-way on those portions, often causing passenger train delays.

Florida’s Scott—who’s backed by the Tea Party—cited government overreach and additional costs when he rejected the money for a Tampa-Orlando rail project in February. When Michigan’s Snyder, who has also received Tea Party support, accepted the money, some Tea Party members were displeased.
“We oppose it. It doesn’t make much sense to spend us into debt just because it comes from the federal government,” said Gene Clem, spokesman for Southwest Michigan Patriots, “We need to cut spending, not just shift it from pocket to pocket.”

While the money likely would be redirected to another state if rejected, not back to the taxpayers, some see the rejection as a strong statement.

“Right now we are a debtor nation,” said Tea Party member Brian Sommerfield of Petoskey. “When you take a look at that, it’s not responsible. As a responsible citizen or elected official, those dollars should be rejected.”