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Rail proponents use shaky data to secure millions in funding

Proposed Railway Project Study Uses Questionable Data To Secure Millions in Funding

A $2.3 million feasibility study is set to include many questionable assumptions about a proposed railway project that would connect Ann Arbor to Traverse City.

Michigan Capitol Confidential reported Aug. 26 that the project received state and federal funds to complete a phase II study. An earlier study, conducted in 2018 for the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, was produced by Transportation Economic & Management Systems, Inc.

But the 2018 report appears to stretch the data to support its favorable claims for the railway project.

The Groundwater Center is an environmental activist group that predicts a railway line will boost tourism to Traverse City and cut down on vehicle use. The original feasibility study used data from a Traverse City Center for Tourism study, conducted by Anderson Group in 2013.

“As can be seen, the Traverse City area alone attracts about 3.8 million visitors per year, and the Petoskey area attracts another 2.5 million passengers," the study said. "Therefore, it is estimated that overall more than six million passengers visit these areas annually.”

But The Anderson Group study itself used a novel definition of Traverse City's market. The group “met with TCTC staff to define the Traverse City area and gather data and information on major events that draw tourists and hotel room bookings," according to the study. "The Traverse City area consists of all of Grand Traverse County, parts of Antrim County, and much of the other surrounding areas.”

Grand Traverse County is 601 square miles. Antrim County is 602 square miles. A railroad would only pass through a tiny slice of this vast area. Visitors, even if they were to arrive by rail, would need motor vehicles to visit most of the area — foiling the Groundwork Center's own mission of reducing vehicular traffic by herding people onto trains.

It is a 55-mile drive from downtown Traverse City to Leelanau Peninsula, a popular area destination and one of the places most likely to draw any potential tourists. The study also includes Sleeping Bear Dunes among the “surrounding areas” — a distance of 27.8 miles from the downtown area where the railway would offboard passengers. The dunes attract 1,143,857 visitors annually according to National Park Service.

Groundwork also seems to have marked up some of the numbers in its source material. The 2018 study notes that it used tourism data from a Traverse City database and says 3.8 million people visit Traverse City on average. In its footnotes on Traverse City visitors, Groundwork provides the Anderson Group study for reference. But this study only claims 3.3 million people visit the Traverse City region (as defined above.)

“Just like with airports, people arriving in any community would need a mix of transportation options to help them reach their final destinations. The more detailed level of analysis in the next study would take a deeper look into the traveler market and the potential last mile transportation services that may be needed in each community,” Jim Bruckbauer, transportation director for Groundwater says, told Michigan Capitol Confidential.

Bruckbauer also says data in the study which show where people start and end their trips to the Traverse City area came from regional planning agencies and “other sources,” which are listed on pages 3-15. They are the same sources transportation agencies use to estimate traffic demand for road widening projects, he said.

The report does not appear to provide empirical support for the figures in a section called “ridership forecasts.” Just 295 words in length, this section does not include the underlying assumptions on which its claims are based, such as the relevant population base figures, relevant comparisons to existing travel patterns, or other supporting data. 

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.