Federal generosity, Florida flip bring higher-speed rail to Michigan, but state is still yet to pitch in

Snyder steps up to take rail cash, but will he take the hint?
Snyder steps up to take rail cash, but will he take the hint?

Detroit’s diminutive New Center Amtrak station isn’t the most imposing of press conference locations. A White Castle drive-through sits across the way, and the massive former headquarters of General Motors casts a long shadow just a couple blocks north. Yet on Monday, the television that usually chatters inside the fluorescent-lit waiting room was switched off, as reporters and dignitaries rushed the building for the best news it’s heard in the 23 years since its construction.

As reported yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was on hand at the station – with Governor Snyder, Senators Levin and Stabenow, Mayor Bing, Congressmen Dingell and Clarke, and others – to hand over an oversized $200 million check to the state for improvements to the Amtrak Wolverine line from Chicago to Detroit, almost entirely for upgrading and, probably, buying the track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. That done, trains there will reach 110-mph speeds, as they now do to the west. “The Secretary is always welcome in Detroit, with or without a check,” Levin proclaimed, adding that the check was the preferred option. “I guess we probably ought to thank Governor Scott for rejecting that money,” he said, taking a shot at the Florida Republican who turned down $2 billion in train cash, freeing it for use in Michigan and other states.

Michigan’s receipt of the money contrasts with the fate of Ohio and Wisconsin. Like Michigan, both elected GOP governors last year, but Wisconsin’s Walker and Ohio’s Kasich took an aggressive stance against rail funding, turning down the money offered by the feds. Ohio didn’t even apply for rail money this year; Wisconsin did (for a smaller amount), but was spurned for its refusal to cooperate earlier.

In Detroit, Governor Snyder called it “an exciting day for Michigan” and credited LaHood for “taking more calls from me than any other cabinet member.” Receipt of the rail money, he said, was “a great indication of the culture of our state starting to move in a positive way.” LaHood, a Republican himself, took pains to praise Snyder’s cooperation in contrast with his Midwestern counterparts. “People may be surprised today that the governor has stepped up,” he said, “but I’m not surprised by it,” going on to drop a hint about the desirability of restoring a rail link to Toronto. “We talk an awful lot about bridge crossings in this state,” he observed, referring to the proposed Detroit River International Crossing. “Well, how about a rail crossing at the Michigan-Canadian border?”

To be sure, this is good news that brings Michigan closer to a better transportation system. Yet we should note that the state could already have closed on this deal if it put up some of its own money for rail last year. In effect, all the feds have done is make up the difference, covering the local match which Michigan failed to provide. We’ve scoldedSnyder in the past for his reluctance to move the state towards wiser transportation policies of its own. True, Michigan needs all the help it can get right now. But if we aren’t willing to move away from funding what Snyder himself called “urban sprawl” on Monday, and start growing transit investments instead of slashing them, assistance from on high will only carry us so far.