$8.7 million in federal funding to help rejuvenate the West Michigan Railroad

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The West Michigan Railroad Co. will receive up to $8.7 million in federal funding to upgrade and rebuild 5.6 miles of track in southwest Michigan that railroad officials say will help spur economic development.

The funding is part of the $30 million allocated to Michigan’s railroad infrastructure through the Federal Railroad Administration’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Michigan last week to announce grant recipients.

The November 2021 federal Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act significantly increased funding for the grant program, which supports projects focused on rail safety, transportation equity, energy-efficient transportation, and economic growth.

West Michigan Railroad plans to use the grant funds to update two railroad crossings and rebuild 5.6 miles of track that was removed by a previous owner. The funds will also support further improvements and replacements on approximately 10 miles of outdated track in southwestern Michigan. West Michigan Railroad and the Michigan Department of Transportation have agreed to match 35% of the grant.

Western Michigan Railroad marketer Mike Hnatiuk said all revenue from the line is generally plowed back into track repair and maintenance. The planned upgrades will increase safe rail speeds in the region by 10 to 25 mph and help maintain track load capacity.

Against a backdrop of high fuel prices and a shortage of truckers, demand for rail transport has increased across the region. If a company ships even one truck a week 300 miles or more, it’s more efficient to ship by rail, Hnatiuk said. As a result, the 5.6-mile reconstruction is expected to reduce material costs for businesses near the line, he said.

Hnatiuk said West Michigan Railroad has been in contact with several companies wanting to move into Van Buren County, who say they won’t come if there is no rail service.

“The intention of all this is to stimulate economic development,” Hnatiuk said.

Jon Cool, President of the Michigan Railroad Associationsaid the Southwest Michigan improvements are “a great story of a small railroad that’s essentially resurrecting a stretch of track in our state and helping businesses succeed.”

West Michigan Radilroad expects the federal grant distribution process to take about six months, with projects underway by spring 2023. Hnatiuk said most work is expected to be completed by 2025.

“Consumers and businesses in Michigan rely on rail transportation to get products to and from market,” U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow said in a statement. “These investments will support a faster, more reliable freight rail system and strengthen our supply chain network.”

West Michigan Railroad is a Class III rail carrier based in Hartford, Van Buren County. Although it’s still Michigan’s smallest railroad, the company oversees a busy line that hauls food, feed, plastics and clean energy products.

Instead of relying on customers with rail access, the company has turned to working with customers who use a hybrid system of rail and road transportation.

West Michigan Railroad is one of 46 rail projects selected to receive funding in 32 states. Also in Michigan, a Michigan Department of Transportation project to improve Great Lakes Central Railroad tracks north of Ann Arbor has received up to $21.3 million.

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