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.

Representatives of the seven regional CEA communities are (from left) Gladstone Mayor Pro Tem Hugo Mattonen; Fenton Mayor Sue Osborn; Ithaca Councilmember L.D. Hollenbeck; Grandville Mayor Pro Tem Josh Meringa; East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett; Cadillac Mayor Carla Filkins; and Harbor Beach Mayor Gary Booms.

Representatives of the seven regional CEA communities are (from left) Gladstone Mayor Pro Tem Hugo Mattonen; Fenton Mayor Sue Osborn; Ithaca Councilmember L.D. Hollenbeck; Grandville Mayor Pro Tem Josh Meringa; East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett; Cadillac Mayor Carla Filkins; and Harbor Beach Mayor Gary Booms.

Placemaking can come in many different forms. It can be in the form of an after-school ski hill program, like the one in Gladstone in the Upper Peninsula. It can also be turning vacant old fire house into a vibrant restaurant in Fenton; or a flower beautification effort in Ithaca; or sharing services in the Lansing area; or revitalizing Grandville’s downtown; or starting a free bicycle rental program in Cadillac; and even doing self-performed dredging in Harbor Beach.

These projects are the seven regional finalists in the 2014 Michigan Municipal League Community Excellence Awards (CEA). They were selected during the Michigan Municipal League’s 2014 Capital Conference March 18, 2014. The League’s annual Community Excellence Award program showcases innovative solutions, programs or projects that have had a positive impact on their community, and can be replicated in other communities with similar challenges. The winner from each region will now go on to compete for the statewide CEA title during the League’s annual convention taking place Oct. 14-17 in Marquette. Every year, the League’s peer-nominated CEA competition recognizes transformational and problem-solving ideas to the many challenges facing communities. Increasingly, these local success stories are place-based projects and initiatives that are having a profound socioeconomic impact on communities in each of the state’s seven regions.

All of these CEA entries can also be described as placemaking success stories. Here is a closer look at the seven finalists shared at this year’s CEA presentations.

Region 1: Fenton Fire Hall:
The city of Fenton had a historic fire hall in the heart of its downtown that was no longer in use and had stood vacant for 10 years. The city of Fenton and Downtown Development Authority established a partnership with a nationally recognized restaurant group, called Union Joints, which focuses on converting historic buildings into eating establishments. The Fenton Fire Hall restaurant is now an extremely popular and successful destination point for people from miles around the Fenton area. Region 1 includes all communities in the southeastern portion of the state’s Lower Peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 2: Metro Connection–Greater Lansing Shared Services Fire Initiative: Six Lansing-area jurisdictions participated in a shared public services study that has led to unprecedented trust building, costs savings and efficiencies between the fire departments from the cities of Lansing and East Lansing and townships of Meridian, Lansing, Delta and Delhi. Region 2 includes all communities in the south-central and southwestern portions of the Lower Peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 3: Grandville’s downtown streetscape project: A vibrant downtown and a sense of place are crucial to a community’s identity and health. Grandville is one of the few Grand Rapids inner-ring suburbs that still has a traditional downtown, but its downtown was becoming more aged and losing many of its key attributes. A recent streetscape project created a more pedestrian-friendly downtown by improving parking, walkability and revitalizing the downtown core. Work included giving Chicago Drive, a former state trunkline, a road diet by narrowing it down from four to two lanes with a center turn lane, adding on-street parking, benches, banners, flower pots and brick pavers, as well as burying power lines under the street. Since the completion of the work, several new businesses have opened in the area, including Grandville’s first microbrewery, and new downtown community events have successfully started and drawn more people to the city. Region 3 includes all communities in the west-central area of the state’s Lower Peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 4: Ithaca’s flower beautification community project: The city of Ithaca has a 12-inch strip of land lining its main street coming into the downtown area. Each year the community gets together to plant flowers along this area as a way to welcome visitors and residents. The project also brings the community together because everyone pitches in on the planting, including students from area schools, flower organizations, nonprofit service groups and many others. Region 4 includes all communities in the east-central part of the state’s Lower Peninsula, excluding the Thumb. View a full press release and photos.

Region 5: The city of Harbor Beach’s self-performed dredging project:  With water levels on the Great Lakes being so low last summer, many communities like Harbor Beach had to do emergency dredging in order to accommodate boats in its municipal marina. The city owns and operates a 114-slip marina on Lake Huron in the thumb of Michigan. Harbor Beach received grant funding assistance from the Department of Natural Resources-Waterways to do the dredging. The city administered the dredging project using its own equipment and personnel. Region 5 includes all communities in the Thumb. View a full press release and photos.

Region 6: Cadillac’s bicycle rental project called Bike Cadillac!: The city of Cadillac has put to use the many abandoned and unclaimed bicycles the police department has collected over the past several years. The city takes these bikes, has them refurbished if needed, places decals on them, provides locks, and then rents them for free to visitors and residents in the Cadillac area. People use the bikes on city trails, paths, and roads to travel around Lake Cadillac, visit Mitchell State Park and the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Museum, and/or travel to downtown Cadillac. The exciting and innovative program started in 2013 through a partnership with Mitchell State Park, which is the location of the bike station. The program was a very popular and successful endeavor and plans are now underway to expand it. Region 6 includes all communities in the northern portion of the lower peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 7: Gladstone After School Ski Hill Program: The Upper Peninsula city of Gladstone is known as the “year-round playground” which conveys the great quality of life and sense of place enjoyed by our residents and visitors. Up to 70 kids a day attend the city’s after-school ski hill program. Students from Gladstone and surrounding schools can ride a bus three days a week to the city’s ski hill where they receive a healthy snack and homework assistance. At 4 pm they can tube, snowboard or ski. Equipment is provided as needed and lessons provided by the hill’s student/city employees. This program addresses latch-key issues, educational support, healthy eating and exercise, personal growth in skills and self-confidence, as well as employment and job skills for high school students. It makes a life-long hobby affordable and is a collaboration with area schools. Region 7 includes all communities in the Upper Peninsula. The other communities that competed for the Region 7 CEA nomination were Ironwood and St. Ignace. View a full press release and photos.

The CEA program, affectionately called “The Race for the Cup,” was started by the League in 2007 to recognize innovative solutions taking place in Michigan’s cities, villages and urban townships.

View photos of the League’s 2014 Capital Conference, which focused on the League’s Partnership for Place policy agenda. View media coverage from the conference.