Second Chance for Detroit Rail Line ???
WASHINGTON – Detroit members of the state’s congressional delegation pressed today for reconsideration of a regional transit plan that – for now, at least – puts the prospect of a light-rail line running along Woodward Avenue on the back burner while promoting a wider series of rapid transit bus routes.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met with members of the delegation Wednesday morning to brief them on his discussions with Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing who, LaHood said later in a statement, “have come together around a high tech vision that will provide state-of-the-art, reliable transit to far more people and in a far more cost-effective way.” He promised the transportation department’s support.
And that support will be key: It could cost $400-$600 million to build and operate rapid bus lines running from downtown to Selfridge Air National Guard Base, to Sterling Heights and Birmingham, then south again to Detroit. But that would be equal to the cost of building and operating a single light rail line from downtown to the city’s northern edge at 8 Mile.
“My takeway was that the light rail wasn’t feasible because of Detroit’s financial situation, that Detroit wouldn’t have the money,” said U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit. But he and other members of the delegation argued that the decision should be reconsidered and a solution found to build and connect light rail, high-speed rail and rapid bus service – perhaps by embracing his idea of pumping all federal tax receipts from Detroit back into the city for its own use for a time. That would provide enough matching funds to pay for the project and more.
Light rail, he said, would create enthusiasm and draw investment better than rapid bus service.
“When you’ve got fixed rails, you get permanent investment which leads to permanents jobs,” he said. “I’m not going to allow it (light rail) to be over.”
But LaHood, when asked at the meeting if he would reconsider, said it wasn’t his decision: It was local leaders’, meaning Snyder and Bing. Clarke said he would continue to work on them — as well as businesspeople and community leaders – to keep light rail on the table.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, criticized Bing for making such a decision that rejects the $100 million raised for light rail by local investors who Levin called “angels for our city.” Levin has long been a supporter of light-rail along Woodward Avenue and said he asked LaHood to “delay any decision until the investors’ ideas and concerns … receive a response” from Bing.
U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) also wants LaHood to take another look at the light rail proposal. But he was encouraged by the tone of what he heard, however. He said it was clear that LaHood “is very committed to make sure we’re able to develop a transit system in the Detroit area that works for people.” Successful light-rail system tend to be larger projects, requiring even greater startup funding. Smaller projects, like this one, can lack the same level of use a larger system – like the proposed rapid bus system – can provide.
Peters, who is running in the same district as Clarke next year, said no one should believe the bus system isn’t substantial, either: If it’s like the others he has seen, the buses look more like train cars on tires. They pick up and let off passengers at permanent stations and run on a set schedule with notices when the next bus will arrive – just like a train. And they can be built at a cost of about one-third the cost of the same length of light-rail.
LaHood showed the delegation sketches of the proposed routes. Peters said his biggest concers are getting the route to Pontiac – it’s not connected as of now – and making sure the bus lanes and service generate economic activity similar to what a light rail line would create
LaHood said he thought a $25-million grant previously awarded for light rail could go toward Bing and Snyder’s plans.
Pugh says scrapping light rail was a mistake
Council President Charles Pugh said scrapping the light-rail project was a mistake because the city is in desperate need of investment and hope.
“We are moving toward becoming a much more vibrant city, but we can’t do that without a comprehensive transit system, which I believe needs to include light rail,” Pugh said. “This was about more than transportation. This was about transit-oriented development.”
If there’s a silver lining, Pugh said, it’s that bus rapid transit could generate more interest in a regional transit authority that is more efficient and inexpensive than SMART and the Detroit Department of Transportation.
Staff Writer Steve Neavling contributed to this report