Feds follow business in backing Detroit rail line

January 18, 2013 - 5:33 PM
Detroit Light Rail

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, right, talks with Roger Penske after a news conference in Detroit, Friday, Jan. 18, 2013 where LaHood announced that the federal government will award $25 million toward the $140-million M-1 Rail project. The 3.3-mile streetcar line along Woodward Avenue will link the city's downtown and the cultural, medical and educational center a few miles north. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

DETROIT (AP) — The federal government committed $25 million Friday to build a streetcar line through the heart of Detroit, putting in place the last piece of a plan bringing light rail to one of the few urban centers still without it.

The rest of the $140 million tab for the 3.3-mile streetcar line along Woodward Avenue will be funded by a public-private partnership with sizable donations coming from companies whose workers are commuting from revitalized neighborhoods to offices downtown. It remains unclear, however, whether the cash-strapped city will ever be able to extend the line into the poorest neighborhoods where better mass transportation is desperately needed.

Leaders have long said public transportation must improve for Detroit to grow. Light rail along Woodward, the primary business and commercial corridor, has been discussed for years, but hasn't been a priority in a city struggling with debt, violence and population loss.

Electric trolleys that once shuttled Detroiters around the city were torn up decades ago and replaced by buses as the Motor City bet on roads, not rails.

There have been 24 failed attempts over the past 40 years to develop a modern public transit system in Detroit, Gov. Rick Snyder noted at a morning news conference. "We're the only place that didn't have this," he said.

Detroit's public transportation has largely been limited in recent decades to a problem-plagued public bus system and the People Mover elevated rail, which many see as a symbol of the city's financial woes and mismanagement.

The People Mover was designed to take suburban residents coming into the city on a light rail line to spots downtown. But the light rail line was canceled during the Reagan Administration. The stand-alone People Mover opened in 1987, but without connecting train service, it had limited use and was widely seen as a waste of money. Under its current configuration, it makes 13 stops in a 2.9-mile loop of downtown.

While the bus system covers a wider area, residents complain of frequent breakdowns that leave them waiting an hour or more to be picked up, and Mayor Dave Bing, facing a deep budget deficit, has eliminated some sparsely used routes and cut back on hours of service along others.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood elicited laughs Friday when he announced that it was his 13th visit to Detroit. "Lucky 13," he said, but part of the reason the transit chief has visited so frequently and for so long without releasing any money was that he needed assurances that the state and city could uphold their end of the bargain.

That came in part last year, when the Michigan Legislature approved a long-sought regional transit authority for the Detroit area that will create a rapid-transit bus system and possibly expand the M-1 line north to Pontiac and west to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The initial line will run from downtown to an area a few miles north that includes Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts and other cultural and educational institutions.

But the key component to making the M-1 line a reality was a commitment from Penske Automotive Group chief Roger Penske, Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert and other leaders from Detroit's business and nonprofit communities to raise more than $100 million to finish the project.

"We need to reach out into the neighborhoods to make the city better," Penske said Friday. "But we need to have a strong core, and this project will do this. This is going to revitalize economic development along this corridor. People are going to want to move their shops here, live here and it's going to bring jobs. And that's the most important thing. We need jobs."

Detroit could be the first U.S. city to pay for a major mass transit project in private dollars, although that has happened overseas in places like Tokyo, said Robert Puentes, a transportation expert with the Brookings Institution. Detroit also has precedent in the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, which links Detroit and Windsor, Canada. Those using it pay a toll.

Construction on the M-1 Rail line could begin later this year, with streetcar service starting in the fall of 2015. The route will include 11 stations and additional curb-side stops. A one-way trip would take about 15 minutes, depending on the time of day.

One remaining concern is that the M-1 line will serve only select travelers in Detroit, a sprawling city where many residents need public transportation.

U.S. Rep. Gary Peters said he recently rode city buses to talk to residents about their experiences and came away horrified by the lengths to which some riders go to get to work, school or elsewhere. He called it "a moral issue," and one that must be addressed.

To that end, LaHood promised an additional $6.5 million in federal funds to help improve city bus service and develop a rapid-transit bus network between downtown, the suburbs and key destinations in the region.