Detroit Studies Restoring Passenger Trains to Michigan Central Station - Sachse Construction
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Detroit Studies Restoring Passenger Trains to Michigan Central Station

More than 30 years after the last passenger train left Michigan Central Station, Ford Motor Co. and regional leaders are studying whether Amtrak service can return to the iconic building, Bridge Magazine has learned.

A $30,000 feasibility study commissioned by the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority is underway and should wrap up by month’s end, and discussions are ongoing between Ford, the City of Detroit and other transportation officials, said Kyle Burleson, executive director for the Port Authority.

The development comes one year after Ford bought the building –  which had become one of Detroit’s best-known symbols of blight –  for $90 million and announced plans for a $1 billion restoration. The Dearborn-based automaker plans to bring 5,000 jobs to the building and surrounding area to work on autonomous and electric cars.

The big question is not only how much it would cost to restore passenger rail service at the 106-year-old building, but where to get the money.

“Is this something we can do in a… millage? Is it something foundations can step up to the plate for? We just don’t know,” Burleson told Bridge.

“The goal right now is to try to figure out what it would cost then determine where we go from there.”

The news comes as Amtrak is considering restoring train service from Detroit to Toronto, which stopped in 1971. Service restoration was indicated as a future possibility in a line item in Amtrak’s annual grant request to Congress, as first reported in Curbed Detroit.

The passenger rail lines that remain at Michigan Central Station could serve as a hub that the federal government wants to connect Chicago to Toronto, said Burleson of the Port Authority.

“The timing was kind of perfect. Hopefully it all fits together and something develops out of it,” he said.

Burleson said Ford officials approached the Port Authority about the study, and talks have included officials from Wayne County, the City of Detroit, regional officials and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said he couldn’t confirm discussions but issued a statement saying Amtrak is “exploring places it can modernize and expand its services and network.”

“A Chicago/Western Michigan-Detroit-Toronto corridor is one of the services where we see promise,” according to the statement.

Currently, Amtrak runs passenger train service in Detroit through a small station in Midtown with other nearby stops in Royal Oak, Dearborn and Ann Arbor.

Ford officials did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, while a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he wasn’t aware of any discussions.

Detroit’s Ellis Island

The possibility of returning train service to the station has been bandied about for years. The building’s former owner, the family of Manuel “Matty” Moroun, also explored the idea.

Michigan Central Station is one of the best-known buildings in Detroit, if not all of Michigan.

For 75 years, it was the state’s equivalent of Ellis Island, bringing generations to Michigan for jobs and sending thousands off to wars, according to the website HistoricDetroit.org.

And for the past generation, it’s been a haunting reminder of Detroit’s decline. Train service ended in 1988 and the building fell into disrepair and became an international symbol of “ruin porn.”

“It has been going from famine to feast in terms of one of Detroit’s most iconic abandoned buildings,” said Dan Austin, an author, historian and founder of HistoricDetroit.org that catalogues the city’s architectural legacy.

“It’s a building no one thought could be saved. It hasn’t seen anything but vandals and scrappers in years. And to tell you that Ford is coming in there and not only going to renovate it and restore it to all its glory, but make it a train station again? It’s hard to believe.”

Austin said train service could be a big win in a region that has spent decades discussing but failing to act on improvements to regional transit. Expanding train service from Detroit to Ann Arbor has been discussed for years, and is part of the master plan for the Regional Transit Authority created in 2013 to improve transit. Southeast Michigan voters rejected a millage in 2016 for improvements, though.

Besides funding, other hurdles remain including cooperation from freight train operators. Canadian Pacific Railway currently runs freight trains on tracks near the historic station, said Michael Frezell, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The state is aware of the ongoing feasibility study but it’s still too early to know what kind of arrangement could be worked out between passenger and freight train operators or the costs involved, Frezell said.

Moving forward

Ford is renovating the train station with the help of a 30-year Renaissance Zone designation from Michigan Strategic Fund that is worth $239 million in tax breaks.

Notably, Ford announced no plans to remove the old passenger train tracks and until now those involved in the project have dodged the question about whether it will again be a train station.

The station is in one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods, Corktown, which will receive  $22 million in improvements from Ford through a community benefits agreement with the city in exchange for the tax breaks.

Former Detroit City Council Sheila Cockrel lives in the neighborhood and served on a board that negotiated the community benefits with Ford.

Growing up, she said she remembers hearing nearby train whistles and is excited by the possibility of resumed service.

“There’s a long history of this as a viable transportation node,”  Cockrel said.

“I think it could be a really fascinating and really exciting development for the city and the region.”

Megan Owens, executive director for Transportation Riders United, said the idea also raises many questions, including how riders would get to downtown from the station, which is more than a mile away.

Even so, she said she’s excited by the prospect.

“People just go crazy over it,” Owens said. “We’ll see where it goes.”

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