Wednesday, March 21, 2012

3 Days Across the Mitten: A Michigan Odyssey

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Although “odyssey” certainly is an appropriate word, I’m not sure if the word selection is more impactful or ironic for the group from Transportation for Michigan who began traveling today from Detroit to Traverse City (via Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids – what no time to stop in Hell?) to “demonstrate the challenges and opportunities of Michigan’s passenger transportation system.”

It is a creative project focused on encouraging dialogue on transportation reform and investment in the state of Michigan. Along with press riding along during the project, Trans4M is hosting forums and panel discussions along the way in Grand Rapids, and Traverse City. They definitely have to be given props for picking venues as they’ll host reception at Founder’s Brewing Co. in GR and North Peak Brewing in TC.

It’s important to note the stops at The Reserve in Birmingham, Founder’s, and North Peak because it does indeed sound like an odyssey to spend 3 days traveling an indirect 350 miles from the Detroit airport to downtown Traverse. If you’re going to have a dialogue, those are pretty good places to start.

It’s a neat PR stunt to start a dialogue, so let’s go:

By traveling around the state, Michigan Odyssey is examining not just public transportation within the Detroit, Kalamazoo, or Grand Rapids areas, but more so how the cities in Michigan are connected to each other. In discussing the Michigan Odyssey project with MLive, Michigan Environmental Council (Trans4M’s parent organization) deputy policy director, Tim Fischer points out that “we can’t (easily) go from the Detroit airport, which is a major entrance to the state, to Traverse City, which is a major tourist attraction.”

Now it is probably easier than taking 3 days, heck you can get a connecting flight for DTW to Cherry Capital Airport. That sounds pretty easy. Now it may add a couple hundred bucks to your flight costs, but that’s not a lot compared to the possibility of spending millions of dollars to build a passenger rail line to TC. Even if such a line did exist, it may not be less expensive to take the train than to take a connecting flight. Likewise, although I haven’t researched it, I’m sure there must be a privately run bus service (e.g. Greyhound) that runs from Detroit to Grand Traverse City.

Along with keeping supply and demand in perspective, it’s always important to remember that there are costs, trade-offs, and alternatives.

Specifically, I don’t see high speed rail being a wise investment for Michigan. The state would be much better served using funds to maintain, upgrade, and expand the existing road infrastructure.

I also don’t see demand for it. Drive along Michigan’s highways towards its tourist destinations and you see a lot of campers/RV’s, boats, bikes, and snowmobiles in the winter. It’s a sportsman paradise and it’s hard to hook your boat up to Amtrak and launch it in Torch Lake.

Similarly, I don’t see a need for public investment in an intra-state bus system. The private sector can serve that need and already does. Even the Michigan Odyssey team is taking Indian Trails scheduled coaches from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids and from there to Traverse City.

I don’t mean to suggest that Michigan can’t improve upon its transportation infrastructure, but some of those issues are mostly local. Grand Rapids voted to expand their RAPID bus system over the past year and Detroit continues to discuss how to improve public transportation and new infrastructures.

Likewise, investments in bike trails and bicycle lanes over the past two decades have been growing in popularity, offer an additional transportation option, and can impact housing and community standards of living. I loved being able to go back and forth across Traverse City on the TART Trail as a teenager and would highly recommend the Pedal Across Lower Michigan (PALM) bike tour if you would like to spend an enjoyable week in June in Michigan biking from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron/Erie.

Please chime in and lets us know on your thoughts on public transportation in Michigan. You can also follow the Michigan Odyssey team on Twitter #MIOdyssey. You can see if MLive reporter Jeff Wattrick confirms that “71-minute, local service bus ride from Romulus to River Rouge is exactly the sort of ground service weary travelers are looking for after a long flight and the TSA’s complimentary colo rectal exam security screening.” – I had to fit that quote in somewhere.

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