MIPRC's 2021 Annual Meeting focuses on potential future under new Midwest Regional Rail Plan
The Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission’s potential expansion under a new federal long-term regional rail plan dominated discussion at the 2021 Annual Meeting held Oct. 13-15 in Detroit.
The meeting began Oct. 13 at Chicago Union Station with MIPRC and the Federal Railroad Administration jointly releasing the Midwest Regional Rail Plan, which envisions a Midwestern passenger rail network in 2050 centered on Chicago, building on current state-supported planning and services, connecting metropolises from the Twin Cities and Kansas City to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Nashville with multiple daily round trips.
The plan also envisions a much bigger role for MIPRC. Its executive summary states in part that the FRA plans to work with the Commission and Midwestern states “to advance and elevate the MIPRC as a governance structure with the clear authority, responsibility and mandate for overseeing and implementing the outcomes of the Midwest’s intercity rail planning initiative.”
In the press conference announcing the plan, FRA Deputy Administrator Amit Bose (who was introduced by Ray Lang, Amtrak’s vice president for state supported services) said the Midwest Regional Rail Plan looks 40 years ahead and “addresses key corridor and investment priorities, potential funding strategies, and necessary governance structures identified by the states, working with MIPRC.”
MIPRC Chair Bob Guy stressed the work done by Midwestern states thus far to build out a regional network and praised the plan as a model of cooperation between states and the FRA, while Indiana Rep. Sharon Negele, the Commission’s financial officer, spoke of the potential benefits to both urban and rural communities. MIPRC Director Laura Kliewer handled questions from reporters. (Read our story about the plan’s release here.)
Several additional MIPRC commissioners and partners attended that morning’s press conference, held in the Burlington Room (tours of which have been staples of Annual Meeting sendoffs from Union Station in recent years) before the group took the afternoon state-supported Wolverine train to Detroit. FRA Deputy Administrator Amit Bose joined the trip and spoke with commissioners en route.
Speaking aboard the train, Bose said the Midwest Regional Rail Plan’s release was a major step forward and that FRA will remain active in providing technical support to states “to get to the next level” in planning.
He said that once pending federal legislation is passed to fund transportation (including funding for interstate compacts to conduct planning), the FRA will be looking not just for “shovel-ready” projects but “shovel-worthy” ones – those that are both ready and low-risk/high-reward.
But, he added, those projects will be driven by the states: “I would like to see projects that have state support or maybe need a nudge from states, or that have regional support."
The meeting continued in hybrid fashion on Oct. 14-15 at TechTown, a nonprofit business service organization on the Wayne State University campus. In addition to commissioners’ and partners’ in-person attendance, those unable to make the trip joined the meeting via Zoom.
Presentations on Oct. 14 included:
MIPRC’s 2020-21 Year in Review (MIPRC Director Laura Kliewer)
Amtrak’s ConnectsUS Plan (Paul Vilter, Amtrak, Asst. Vice President for Planning & Commercial Services)
How We Move Forward Together (Roger Harris, Amtrak, Executive Vice President for Marketing)
Status of Passenger Rail Improvements in the Region (Various state DOT representatives)
Next Steps for the Midwestern Regional Rail Plan (Peter Schwartz, FRA, Project Manager)
During their presentations, Vilter and Harris noted the similarities between the Midwest Regional Rail Plan and Amtrak’s own ConnectsUS plan released earlier in 2021, and said Amtrak is willing to work with MIPRC and the Midwestern states on grant applications for corridor identification and planning.
Vilter said service corridors in the ConnectsUS plan are based on projected population increases, highway congestion and passenger train travel potential between all cities in them, not just end points: “There’s a lot going on in between [end points].”
Harris said the Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act (H.R. 3684) pending in Congress has money and opportunities for Amtrak to assist states not only with planning but also funding of new services through the first five years of operation.
Commissioners also began discussing potential next steps for MIPRC, as the Midwest Regional Rail Plan suggests the Commission be the regional governance structure for carrying the plan forward – a conversation that was continued on Oct. 15.
Commissioners agreed that in 2022, MIPRC should take steps to become an eligible grant recipient; and should create a sub-committee to propose next steps. Commissioners also agreed to empower that sub-committee to propose what to do with money set aside in MIPRC’s FY 2022 budget for planning purposes. The full Commission would then come together to approve any funding use.
Other 2022 priorities include supporting a grant application for overhauling the Midwestern equipment pool’s Siemens “Charger” locomotives, continuing to press for re-authorization of the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act and carrying forward other ongoing priorities from 2021.Finally, commissioners heard a “Spotlight on MIPRC Partner” presentation on Quandel Consultants from Melanie Johnson and Tim Hoeffner (a former MIPRC commissioner and officer), which highlighted Quandel’s long history of projects in the Midwest, and also explained the work being done to quantify the return-on-investment (ROI) for intercity passenger rail.
Commissioners also gave final approval for MIPRC’s 2022 budget and re-elected as officers Bob Guy (Illinois), chair; Arun Rao (Wisconsin DOT) vice chair; and Indiana Rep. Sharon Negele, financial officer.
The 2022 Annual Meeting was tentatively set for the week of Nov. 14, in Illinois’ Bloomington-Normal metropolitan area.