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Michigan DOT to Invest $57M into New Detroit Amtrak Station

The state Department of Transportation has received a $10 million grant to transform an Amtrak station into a centralized transportation hub with retail opportunities and exhibits. The new station is expected to open in 2025.

(TNS) — Rail passengers traveling into and out of Detroit, Mich., via Amtrak could see a new train station rise in the city's New Center area in coming years.

The Biden administration has announced a $10 million grant — money not connected to the recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill — to help fund the Michigan Department of Transportation's longtime goal of building a new train station. The aim is a station that would not only provide a more fitting gateway to the Motor City for rail passengers but one that would also bring other modes of transportation, including buses operated by Greyhound and Indian Trails, taxi and ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber, as well as bike-sharing, into a centralized hub just west of Woodward Avenue.

The Detroit New Center Intermodal Facility would be built at the current train station location on Baltimore Street and add a new, enclosed intercity bus station to replace the one about 3 miles away on Howard Street near the Lodge Freeway. Access to more transportation options is considered key for the New Center neighborhood, where, according to MDOT, one in three households does not have access to a car.

The federal grant money will not pay for the whole project, so the state will still need to provide the rest of the approximately $57 million total estimated price tag, with gas tax revenue and registration fees a possible source.

"We're hoping our (almost) $60 million will be the seed money for a lot of other stuff," said Jim Schultz, the project manager for MDOT.

Schultz described his hope the development would also include restaurants and shops, even a model railroad exhibit. He said the state has talked with the Detroit Historical Museum about the possibility of opening an annex there.

He has been eyeing transit-related developments in other cities that go beyond just functional buildings.

"We just need to dream. There's other places building fantastic architecture. That's what we need to do," Schultz said, noting that the state is open to partnering with local officials on design.

Currently, Schultz said the goal is to have a request for proposal to build the center issued in 2023 with an opening date in 2025.

Rail advocates say it'll be well worth the investment and is a much-needed upgrade.

"The (train) station is pretty cramped. The platform is real narrow," said John Guidinger, chair of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, who noted the current Detroit station platform, which MDOT would like to widen from 5 to 12 feet, can't currently accommodate baggage carts. "The whole thing needs to be re-laid out ... to make it more user-friendly. This is the start of that."

Current platform limits also force the trains to stop twice, so all passengers can board or exit, according to MDOT, adding time to each trip for a service that is already challenged with delays, often caused by the way freight and passenger rail must share track.

The station has an elevator, but it's too slow to move passengers efficiently from the 1,696-square-foot waiting room on the main floor to the upper-level platform for boarding, so most have to haul their luggage up a stairwell to catch a train or down after they arrive at the station. Neither the current train nor bus stations comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, according to MDOT.

"Customer amenities are limited to seats, a ticket window and a bathroom. The nearest food option is a White Castle store across busy Woodward Avenue. Passengers board out in the open, exposed to Michigan's weather. The platform narrows at key junctures, a hazard for everyone, but particularly those who use wheelchairs," according to a description of the train station from MDOT's grant paperwork.

For comparison of what Detroit lacks, one only needs to look to Dearborn. That's where the $28.2 million John D. Dingell Transit Center, farther west on the same route, opened in 2014. The 16,000-square-foot center dwarfs Detroit's station at 3,500 square feet. Nearby dining options to the Dearborn site include a Tim Hortons and Ford's Garage.

The difference in scale might not be surprising. The Detroit train station was never meant to be permanent.

"The current Detroit Amtrak rail station was built as a temporary facility in 1992 and opened for service on May 5, 1994; 30 years later, this facility meets neither customer expectations nor operational requirements," MDOT spokesman Michael Frezell said.

The station is on Amtrak's 15-stop Wolverine route, which connects Pontiac to Chicago via cities including Troy, Dearborn, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo. According to MDOT, the three-decade-old train station served more than 72,000 passengers in 2019; Greyhound averaged more than 39,000 passengers that year from the Howard Street station, which MDOT bought in 1989.

Frezell said it's too early in the process to know how a new station might look, but he provided documents showing some of the projects MDOT has reviewed, such as stations in Battle Creek, East Lansing, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, as well as a case study of the $488 million Denver Union Station.

The Denver site is considered a destination of its own in the Mile High City, that, according to the MDOT paperwork, "transformed what was once a decommissioned rail-yard into a vibrant, mixed-use area, with more than $3.5 billion in private development projects in the surrounding area as well as more than $2 billion in economic impact annually," although it has recently attracted unwanted headlines about crime issues.

Guidinger said the Denver station footprint is too large to replicate at the Woodward site, comparing it more to what could be accomplished at the Michigan Central Station, which Ford Motor Co. is redeveloping. There have been discussions between the state and Ford about Michigan Central's use as a train station once again, but it is unclear when something might develop on that front. Both projects, Guidinger said, could exist together, with Michigan Central providing an eventual direct passenger connection to cities in Canada.

Guidinger, who lives in Jackson but used to ride into Detroit via Amtrak to do research at the Detroit Public Library, would like to see the current Wolverine route increase from three round trips per day to 10 or 12.

The pitch for the new station doesn't just rest with boosting amenities for rail passengers, however. Space for mixed-use development, including retail, would be envisioned in an area with access to QLINE stops, local DDOT and SMART bus service, and more parking close to key institutions including the Detroit Institute of Arts, TechTown and Wayne State University.

MDOT would also sell off the almost 30-year-old Greyhound station on Howard Street — the department pegs the value of the property at $3.3 million — and move those buses to an enclosed 12-berth building on the opposite side of the railroad tracks, connecting the train and bus stations by tunnel. MDOT had previously planned to relocate buses from Howard Street to the existing Amtrak station but abandoned that effort in 2019 when it determined the available space was insufficient.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist described the connections that a true intermodal station, one that connects multiple modes of transportation, could mean for the city.

"This is going to be a hub for innovation when it comes to better connecting our communities and our people. I can't wait to see the connections and relationships that are built because we have this center of excellence, frankly, here in the heart of the city. I'm excited about what that means and what the professionals and innovators are going to be able to deliver for transit users and for people who are doing business in that part of the city," Gilchrist said in a recent interview for an MDOT podcast.

In an interview with Fox 2 Detroit ( WJBK-TV), Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the United States would "always" be a car country, but "you shouldn't have to take 2 tons of metal with you anywhere that you need to go."

Funding the Detroit project means more options for travelers, he said.

"This means you could take a bus and then a train and connect directly, which means that from any number of destinations really around Michigan that serve Detroit by bus, that's just a two-seat ride — one on the bus and then one on the train to get to just about anywhere else in the country. That helps people get to where they need to be. It creates options and alternatives, and that's good for economic growth, too," he said.

©2021 www.freep.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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