Columnist: Obstacles ahead, but light rail worth the work

From the Detroit Free Press

In his 1936 essay “The Crack-Up,” novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said real intelligence is the ability to “see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” Seventy-five years later, anyone who has fought for mass transit in southeast Michigan can still feel him.

Despite a soul-shriveling history of detours and dead-ends, transit advocates throughout the suburbs and in this great city keep pushing. (And, yes, I consider Detroit a great city. If that makes me deluded as well as intelligent, I’ll gladly accept both tags.)

The latest shot of hope is the Woodward Light Rail Project, a $500-million public-private partnership to run electric rail cars 9.3 miles up and down Woodward, from Hart Plaza to 8 Mile. As a city resident, I want this as much as anyone.

But it’s not a done deal, despite the unwavering confidence of Mayor Dave Bing and his project point man, Chief Financial Officer Norman White, who expect construction to start next year. The city and region can still blow this, and another failure would be near-fatal to efforts to build mass transit in this region.

Getting the money

The most immediate obstacle is collecting the $100 million pledged by private investors to complete Detroit’s local match for federal New Starts money. City leaders and private investors continue to work out differences over design, alignment and other issues. Maybe half the cheddar — including $35 million from the Kresge Foundation and $9 million from the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. — is a sure bet.

Not getting the full $100 million would not kill the project, but to compete with other cities, Detroit must get most of it. Meeting with the Free Press editorial board in mid-April, the mayor told me he needs investors to commit within 30 days. Thirty days have passed and nothing definitive has happened. A spokesperson for the M-1 Rail leadership team declined to comment through an e-mail on Friday, other than to say “they are not comfortable commenting on something the mayor said in a meeting they were not present at.”

Here’s an even bigger problem: Detroit’s application for federal assistance must explain how the city will pay to operate light rail. Fares will bring in maybe $3 million a year, but running the system will cost at least $10 million more. Facing a $150-million deficit, the city can’t do it alone. For now, there is no plan for a regional transit tax — or even a regional transit authority. That conversation must start now. With the rail line ending at 8 Mile, some suburban leaders are asking what’s in it for them.

The Woodward rail system could tap Michigan’s Comprehensive Transportation Fund, which helps run local transit agencies, including SMART. With only $160 million a year, however, the fund now covers only one-third of the costs of Michigan’s 75 transit agencies — dozens of which are near bankrupt or cutting service to stay solvent. Any plan to take loot from transit agencies around the state to pay for light rail in Detroit would likely set off a fight in the Legislature. Suburban leaders are already beefing about the 65/35 split in state and federal transit money between Detroit and its suburbs.

Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) money could also help pay operating costs. But the rail project would likely get only $1 million or $2 million a year — southeast Michigan receives only $6 million for transit altogether — and CMAQ funding is good for only three years.

More obstacles

Finally, the Federal Transit Administration won’t allow Detroit to weaken its already inadequate bus system to build a rail system — nor should it. More than 25% of Detroiters don’t have vehicles. Their needs come first. Besides, a rail line needs decent bus service to feed it.

City Council did the right thing in approving a bond issue that included $73 million for light rail. Still, repaying the 15-year issue with annual federal transportation grants carries some risks. It’s money that would otherwise go to Detroit’s bus system.

Federal New Starts grants are highly competitive. It’s not enough to have a good plan — only about one in five transit projects nationwide receive funding. No doubt, the Obama administration has taken a special interest in Detroit’s rail project. The feds want it to move forward, but the project still must compete with hundreds of others and get congressional approval.

All that said, I still believe this can happen. Light rail in Detroit could jump-start a first-class regional transit system and generate hundreds of millions of dollars of development, as White told me. But Detroit’s leaders must work out these problems now, maybe with some help from their regional partners.

Things might look hopeless at times, but transit advocates in Detroit and southeast Michigan must determine to make them otherwise.

JEFF GERRITT is a Free Press editorial writer.