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Dearborn Plans For Rail

With the latest round of grants to improve high-speed rail travel between Detroit and Chicago, Michigan has received approximately $400 million in federal funds. Though an improved rail system will certainly increase the travel speed between the two large cities, it will also bring opportunities and growth to Michigan cities along the route.

Dearborn was awarded the largest share of funds during the first round of grants, with $28.2 million provided to relocate and rebuild the city's existing station.

"We're calling this our 'overnight success project' in Dearborn," jokes Barry Murray, director of economic and community development for the City of Dearborn. "It's only been ten years since we came up with the idea."

The city has been exploring mass transit options for a decade, undertaking a feasibility study to determine the best location for an inter-modal rail passenger station to help stimulate the economy and draw the two halves of Dearborn together.

The city of Dearborn was established in 1929 when the towns of Fordson and Dearborn were consolidated into one city. More than 80 years later, the city is still characterized by east and west downtown areas, with Ford Motor Company's world headquarters, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Henry Ford Community College, The Henry Ford and an Amtrak station occupying the otherwise underdeveloped space between.

"The problem is that nothing is connected to anything else," says Murray. "There's no way to get anywhere."

A new station, placed within walking distance to the city's west downtown and The Henry Ford, will not only help connect the two halves of the city, but will also make Dearborn more accessible to visitors from across the state. Visitors to The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village often visit the Village without stopping to fuel the rest of the city's economy.

"Tourists who come by car don't realize that our downtown is right there," says Murray. "But that will be remedied with a train station. We want to encourage visitors and tourists to come downtown."

According to Amtrak, the existing Dearborn station is one of the state's busiest passenger stops, behind only those in Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, with an average of 220 passengers arriving to or departing from the station daily.

With approvals expected to be secured as soon as June, construction on the new station could begin as soon as July or August. Under the terms of the federal grants, the city has two years from the time of approval to complete the project.

Development is expected to spring up along two blocks of undeveloped city-owned and private land near the new station, as part of a city initiative to encourage transit-oriented development.

"The area around transit hubs is typically in high demand," says Murray. "Office buildings, housing, hotels and retail pop up because people want to be within walking distance."

With an abundance of existing dining and entertainment options, riders will be able to get of the train and walk downtown to experience Dearborn. The city is interested in walkability and how the new station can encourage non-motorized traffic. Walkways, greenways, a pedestrian bridge and possibly even bicycle rentals at the station are all being discussed as ways to move people throughout the city.

"Our interest is in making downtown as interesting as we can, with enough diversity in the type of businesses," says Murray. "We want to create an environment that has a sense of place."

Murray says plans are in the works for housing development, including high-density, mixed-use buildings. Live/work lofts near mass transit would help attract and retain young talent, and Murray says UM-Dearborn has expressed interest in student housing within walking distance from the station.

"We are proactive about creating transit-oriented development, as there is underutilized property that could also have potential," says Murray. He says it would be a great opportunity for a hotel, and has had several chains express interest. Murray is hopeful that tourists will come to visit Henry Ford by train and stay in the city for a few days.

The city will also promote rail travel as an affordable way for students to visit The Henry Ford. The state's most popular cultural tourist attraction is also a favorite field trip choice, but with dwindling school district budgets, student transportation is not as readily available as it was in the past.

"School districts have cut back on buses and other student transportation," says Murray. "But if the kids have the train as an option, they could take a day trip from Kalamazoo or even further."

Collegiate students could benefit, as well. With more than 17,000 students enrolled at Henry Ford Community College and more than 8,500 at UM-Dearborn, the improved rail system will be a way to connect students not only within the city, but also to other local metropolitan areas.

Routes between Ann Arbor would help UM students take classes at both the Ann Arbor and Dearborn locations. And the federal funding that is being used to improve the signals, tracks, cars and routes along the Detroit to Chicago corridor will also spur implementation of the regional commuter train route connecting Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Ypsilanti, Metro Airport and Detroit.

"Ultimately, whatever benefits the cities that were awarded the grants, benefits the surrounding cities, too," says Murray. "Cities in surrounding counties will certainly benefit from the improvement of the Dearborn station."

Amtrak ridership is already up more than 22 percent this year, and a successful rail system could only fuel the widespread adoption of public transportation. "People like rail," says Murray. "They're not as wild about buses, but if we can build a mass transit culture here first, people will become interested."
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