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 a portion of the $30 million allocated to Michigan rail infrastructure by the Federal Railroad Administration’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Michigan last week to announce the grant recipients.
The federal Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act of November 2021 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 at-grade crossings and rebuild 5.6 miles of track that was removed by a previous owner. The funds will also support other improvements and replacements across roughly 10 miles of outdated track in Southwest Michigan. West Michigan Railroad and the Michigan Department of Transportation have agreed to match 35 percent of the grant.
West Michigan Railroad Marketer Mike Hnatiuk said all of the line’s revenue is typically reinvested in fixing and maintaining rail. The planned improvements will increase safe rail speeds in the area from 10 to 25 mph, and help to maintain the track’s weight capacity.
Amid high fuel prices and trucker shortages, demand for rail shipping has increased across the region. If a company is shipping even one truckload a week 300 miles or more, it’s more efficient to ship by rail, Hnatiuk said. As a result, the 5.6-mile rebuild is expected to reduce materials costs for businesses near the line, he said.
Hnatiuk said West Michigan Railroad has been in contact with multiple companies looking to move into Van Buren County that say they won’t come unless there’s rail service.
“The whole intent with this is to drive economic development,” Hnatiuk said.
Jon Cool, president of the Michigan Railroad Association, said the Southwest Michigan improvements are “a great story of a small railroad that basically is resuscitating a stretch of track in our state and helping businesses succeed.”
West Michigan Railroad expects the federal grant distribution process to take about six months, with projects underway by spring 2023. Hnatiuk said most of the work is set to be completed by 2025.
“Michigan consumers and businesses rely on rail transportation to get products to and from market,” U.S. Sen. 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 in Van Buren County. Although it’s still the smallest railroad in Michigan, the company oversees a busy line that hauls food products, animal feed, plastics and clean energy products.
Instead of relying on customers with rail access, the company has pivoted to working with customers that use a hybrid of rail and truck shipping.
West Michigan Railroad is one of 46 rail projects selected to receive funding across 32 states. Also in Michigan, a Michigan Department of Transportation project aimed at improving Great Lakes Central Railroad tracks north of Ann Arbor was awarded up to $21.3 million.