The pre-feasibility study looked at several routings for coast-to-coast service, as well as connections to existing Amtrak services.

The pre-feasibility study looked at several routings for coast-to-coast service, as well as connections to existing Amtrak services.

Rail service connecting Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Holland?  Yes, please! With the amount of travel we do just between the League’s Ann Arbor and Lansing offices—let alone across the state—it’s easy to see the benefit of the “Coast-to-Coast Rail” service described in a new ridership and cost estimate study.

The study is the product of nearly five years of work by the Michigan By Rail coalition, in partnership with MDOT and local transit agencies across the state. It dives deep into current travel patterns and the conditions of Michigan’s existing rail network to evaluate the costs and benefits of several possible routings across the state.  Their conclusion: that new train service running 4 to 8 daily round-trips at maximum speeds of 79-110 miles per hour between our state’s major cities is possible, and would be popular.

Forfeit hours of my life to staring at the bumper in front of me, or relax on the train?  Hmmm, tough choice.

Dedicate hours of my life to staring at the bumper in front of me, or relax on the train? Hmmm, tough choice.

This service could give me back 2 hours of productive time every time I need to go to Lansing for a meeting, rather than spending that time staring at the freeway in front of me—I’m writing this blog post from the bus on my morning commute, after all—and the ticket would certainly be cheaper than mileage + parking. Outside of work, when we take the kids to visit family in Grand Rapids, they’d certainly be happier riding the train than stuck in their carseats for two hours and change.

The study says I’m not alone–over a million people a year could be expected to use an 8-round-trip, 110mph rail option on any of the three routings examined. The preliminary financial analysis shows this ridership could actually let the service run a strong enough annual profit to cover Michigan’s capital costs of getting it up and running–not something that can be said of most road projects!

Of course, the real potential of this rail service relies on coordinating it with other pieces of the travel network to address the “last mile” question: how do I get from the train station to where I’m really going? Unless my destination is within half a mile of the station, I’ll need to pair the train service with something else: bikeshare or Uber or a seamless connection to local bus service, if I’m going a couple miles; something like ZipCar at the train station if I’m going a bit further.

The Dearborn PlacePlan included a look at how the new train station could support new mixed-use development.

The Dearborn PlacePlan included a look at how that city’s Amtrak station could support new mixed-use development.

What happens around the stations will also be important to making the service successful: people who live or work or go to school within that half-mile or so from a station are the most likely to use it regularly. Of course, the proposed service connects places that are already major activity centers, which contributes to the positive ridership forecast.  But there are also plenty of surface parking lots, vacant industrial buildings, and similar potential near many of the suggested stations, providing good opportunities for upcycling to active uses.

Obviously, it will be a decade or more before the Coast-to-Coast service can be up and running—but spending that time to look at the land use and connecting transportation networks around the stations will be critical to cities and their residents getting the most of this opportunity.

marks-carts-thumbnailIt started as an idle thought when Ann Arbor businessman Mark Hodesh pondered the unused lot behind his Downtown Home and Garden store: What about food trucks?

In two short years, the once-vacant lot has become a hot spot for local foodies and sparked a statewide food truck movement. Mark’s Carts now provides employment for dozens of people, and has already kick-started two brick-and-mortar restaurants as well as a seasonal beer garden. ”It’s moved downtown’s center of gravity one block west,” said Hodesh, and boosted foot traffic for his happy neighbors. An unexpected bonus: the new lunch crowds cut across the city’s disparate demographics, painlessly bridging the gap between student and “townie” populations.

innovate2That’s the kind of organic placemaking that can happen when city officials open their doors to innovative thinking. It was one of the case studies presented at a recent Governing Innovation Workshop sponsored by the Michigan Municipal League at the Innovatrium, an Ann Arbor-based consulting firm that helps organizations reinvent themselves through creative thinking.

The goal was to help city leaders learn how to recognize the innovators in their own communities, and how to restructure their own processes in ways that will help them “connect the dots” to make these “small wins” a reality.

“When you ask what stops innovation, money isn’t one of them,” said workshop leader Chris Mueller. “It’s stuff like lengthy development time, lack of coordination, a fear of taking risks. We need to think smaller, faster, wider and let those small wins build momentum. But how do we become the host of the party and not the party itself? That’s the challenge.”

innovate1Sometimes it’s learning how to get out of the way, said Ann Arbor Community Services Area Administrator Sumedh Bahl.

“A city has rules for a reason, but there are always ways to help them navigate the rules,” said Bahl. “We have a role as regulators but our role as government is also to facilitate. When you leverage your citizens as a resource to get things done, you make them a partner to solve the problem.”

innovate4Jonesville Village Manager Adam Smith was inspired by the story of Detroit Soup, a neighborhood group that hosts a simple monthly dinner where attendees vote to fund small community projects with the money raised by the meal. Smith hopes to try a similar event in the Jonesville High School cafeteria, where attendees would vote to support projects proposed by student entrepreneurs.

He’s already met with officials from Jonesville Schools and the Hillsdale County ISD and is planning to present the idea to his village council soon.

“This is the kind of thing that could really start our young people on the road to success, and maybe someday they’ll look back and say this is where it all began,” said Smith. “It’s all about building relationships, and us just being the facilitator.”

innovate3The League is hoping to work with the Innovatrium on similar workshops in the future, and is working with Mueller’s team to improve the workshop’s model to make their innovation-themed learning even more applicable to local governments.

We’ll also follow up with Jonesville to see if they’ve been able to make their version of Soup a win for local teens!