Woodward Light Rail faces tough questions

From The South End
(Wayne State student newspaper)

Questions about the purpose and design of the Woodward Light Rail project have arisen while it slowly but surely makes its way through the planning and approval phases.

One vision by area entrepreneurs is for the train to run trolley-style down the sides of Woodward Avenue at slow speeds to promote local retail and commerce. Transportation advocates, on the other hand, are promoting a high-speed train moving down the center of Woodward to effectively move people in and out of the downtown area.

Megan Owens, director of Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit advocate for public transportation, said that the differences between the two plans lie in timeliness and reliability.

If the train runs along the side, then it would have to compete with traffic, cars trying to parallel park and double-parked vehicles, which could potentially delay the train. On the other hand, Owens said, if the train runs in a center lane on Woodward, it wouldn’t be blocked by traffic and would thus be more reliable.

Another concern is how the light rail train would affect bicyclists.

“By law, bicycles are supposed to travel on the road in the slow lane, on the side lane,” Owens said. “If there are train tracks in that lane, it makes it very unsafe for bicycles and really ends up barring bicycles from Woodward Avenue.”

She said TRU supports having the Woodward Light Rail run in the center of Woodward Avenue.

Matt Cullen, CEO of the M-1 group of private investors who are partially funding the project, said that while transportation is important, members of the M-1 group are “fundamentally…certainly keenly focused on the economic development in the downtown core.”

People and corporations constituting the M-1 group of investors include Quicken Loans, Roger Penske, Wayne State, Henry Ford Hospital, Peter Karmanos Jr., the Illitches, Compuware, the Kresge Foundation and Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.

In five years, Cullen said, the Woodward Light Rail will hopefully have major economic benefits for Detroit.

“We’ll be starting to see economic development resulting from the ability to move people to and from jobs, and from being able to move people within the downtown so that they can take advantage of the attractions that are within the downtown,” he said.

Ideally, Cullen said, the Woodward Light Rail would not only transport local people, but also work in conjunction with a high-speed train between Detroit and Chicago to help bring visitors to the downtown area.

Cullen said the M-1 investors decided to fund the light rail after seeing the potential for such a transit system in the city.

“I think people just fundamentally believed that a transit project in Detroit was a compelling need and that (it) would really help the development within the city of Detroit,” he said.

He said it was difficult to persuade federal government officials to approve funding because of some of the “failed history within the region of transit.”

Detroit’s People Mover could be considered an example of such a failure. Although the 2.9-mile system charges each passenger 50 cents, it costs $4.28 to move a passenger one mile, according to statistics from the 2009 National Transit Database.

Bob Berg, partner and vice president of Berg Muirhead and Associates, which handles media relations work for Detroit, said the People Mover was never intended to be a stand-alone system. When it was designed in the 1980s, it was intended to work in conjunction with a light rail train, “so it’s never really realized the potential that was envisioned when it was first designed and built,” he said.

Berg said the ultimate design of the light rail system will be decided by the planning process and the federally-deemed criteria concerning the impact on the surrounding area, traffic, pedestrian safety and the environment.

“The idea is to let the process make the determination,” Berg said. “Once you’re done with the process, the decision sort of makes itself.”

The next step, he said, is to receive the final environmental impact statement, which is projected to be finished by the end of June. After the green light is given for preliminary engineering work, groundbreaking on the project could start during the later half of next year.

Originally, the light rail was supposed to be constructed in two phases: from downtown Detroit to West Grand Boulevard, and then from West Grand Boulevard to Eight Mile Road. Now, Berg said, the project will be completed as one project running from the downtown area to Eight Mile Road.

Approximately $500 million — upwards of 60 percent of total funding – is coming from the Federal Transit Administration, Berg said. The rest of the money will come from the private funding of the M-1 group and from Detroit’s general fund. Additionally, he said the annual estimated operating cost is about $10 million. Approximately $8 million will come from federal funding, while $2 million will come from city funds.

The light rail system could have significant economic ramifications. For every dollar invested in a light rail system, Berg said, there is $8 in private investments in restaurants, homes, offices and retail.

Owens said Detroit’s spending on public transit runs far behind spending on transit in other places. The average metropolitan area spends over $200 per capita per year on public transit, she said, while the Detroit region spends only $75.

“We get what we pay for,” Owens said.

She added that right now, city officials are evaluating the public’s input from the public comment stage, which began January 28 and ended March 14.

“I can tell you that we did get unofficial word that they were almost entirely positive,” she said. “All but a handful were in support of developing a light rail.”

Cullen said that although a balance needs to be found between the two visions for the light rail train, he did not think there was a “fundamental difference” between the two viewpoints.

“I don’t think that there’s a choice that it’s one or the other,” Cullen said. “I think clearly the reality is that it needs to be both. It needs to be a bit of a hybrid.”

Source: http://thesouthend.wayne.edu/index.php/article/2011/05/woodward_light_rail_faces_tough_questions