High level talks set on transit

From the Detroit Free Press:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will be in Detroit on Monday (10/17/11)  to talk to political leaders about resolving intractable regional transit problems typified by major cuts announced this week for the suburban bus system.

LaHood’s office wouldn’t confirm details of the discussions, but the subtext is clear: The Obama administration keenly wants metro Detroit’s leaders to set aside differences and create a regional transit network to improve and modernize bus service and pave the way for Woodward Light Rail, the $550-million line proposed with 19 stops from downtown to 8 Mile Road.

The light-rail project won another measure of federal support Thursday as the Transportation Department awarded $2 million to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments for a study on extending the rail line north through Ferndale and Royal Oak to Maple Road in downtown Birmingham. SEMCOG is working with six south Oakland County communities on the study.

LaHood is to meet Monday with Gov. Rick Snyder, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and tri-county executives or their representatives.

The visit will come on the heels of Thursday’s announcement by SMART that the suburban bus system will eliminate weekday service on 15 of its least-used routes, and terminate at Detroit’s border some bus lines that cross into the city. SMART, which has a daily ridership of 40,000, said the cuts take effect Dec. 12.

Both SMART and the Detroit Department of Transportation, with 120,000 daily riders, are battling steep budget cuts. Southeast Michigan leaders have been discussing possible regional management and funding of the bus systems, but significant hurdles — mostly political — remain.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said financial problems are forcing a hard look at consolidation of services, but he’s skeptical of combining bus systems and building rail transit without knowing how to fund them.

“We already have problems enough with our current infrastructure,” said Hackel, who will have representatives at the LaHood meeting.

LaHood in May presented a $200-million grant to the state for faster passenger rail service between Detroit and Chicago. The state has won $350 million in federal grants to buy and upgrade tracks between Dearborn and Kalamazoo, in addition to $25 million for the initial phase of the light-rail project.

Source: http://www.freep.com/article/20111014/NEWS05/110140397/High-level-talks-set-transit?odyssey=mod%7Cnewswell%7Ctext%7CFRONTPAGE%7Cs