Detroit light-rail line plan scrapped for city, suburban buses

From the Detroit Free Press:

The ambitious plan for a light-rail line on Woodward Avenue between downtown Detroit and 8 Mile has been scrapped in favor of a system of city and suburban buses, several officials briefed on the decision told the Free Press today.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Detroit Mayor Dave Bing that doubts that Detroit could pay operating costs over the long term for the light-rail line because of its and the state’s financial problems swayed him against the plan. The decision came despite earlier public support that included LaHood’s 2010 visit to Detroit to award a $25-million grant to get the project moving.

LaHood, President Barack Obama’s top transportation official, met last week with Bing and Snyder, and the sides agreed that the better option is a system of rapid-transit buses operating in dedicated lanes on routes from downtown to and through the suburbs along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan avenues and along M-59, the officials said.

The death of the light-rail plan brings an end to about four years of intensive effort by the city, private developers and nonprofit groups to create what was widely viewed as the most promising attempt in decades for a light-rail system to Detroit.

Bing’s office wouldn’t release details of the discussions, but said the mayor and LaHood agreed that the city, where more than 60% of residents with jobs work in the suburbs, would be better served by high-speed buses instead of rail, said Bing spokesman Dan Lijana.

“Mayor Bing and Secretary LaHood have had numerous conversations and are on the same page on the future of transit in Detroit,” Lijana said.

Geralyn Lasher, a spokeswoman for Snyder, said the governor has been supportive of a rapid transit bus system for Detroit and southeast Michigan, but light rail trains are “out of our lane..… We’ve always been more in the line of the rapid bus.”

Both the city and a group of private investors known as M-1 Rail and corporate titans such as Dan Gilbert, Roger Penske, Peter Karmanos and Mike Ilitch, along with the powerhouse Kresge Foundation, developed plans for a light-rail project to revitalize the Woodward corridor.

The investors initially wanted a line between downtown and New Center, while the city aimed to take it north to 8 Mile. The private investors pledged tens of millions in seed money, and after some disagreement on the scope of the project, agreed to let the city lead the effort.

The M-1 Rail group of private investors sent a letter dated today to Bing, Snyder and LaHood expressing disappointment about the decision but holding out hope that a shorter, 3.2-mile rail line could still be build on Woodward between downtown and New Center.

In the letter, the investors said that killing the light-rail plan would “leave unfulfilled the promise of light rail on Woodward Avenue that we have all stood behind, leave unused all the work that has come to date, leave on the table $100 million in private and philanthropic investment, and leave to the next generation the prospect of rail transit on Woodward Avenue.”

But it had faced doubts, including Bing’s decision in September to hand over control of the project to the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the quasi-governmental agency that spearheads redevelopment projects for the city. The DEGC also was a significant investor in the project.

Suburban communities in southern Oakland County this fall won federal funding to study extending the rail line north to Maple Road in Birmingham.

Details about how the rapid bus system would be built weren’t available. Officials said the federal money already granted to Detroit can be transferred to a new bus system.

Supporters said the light-rail project had been the region’s best chance at a rail-based transit system since the late 1970s, when the city was promised $600 million in federal funding but lost the money when Oakland and Macomb county leaders wouldn’t go along with the plan.

The decision to scrap the light-rail plan outraged Megan Owens, director of the Detroit advocacy group Transportation Riders United, who said she had heard rumblings in recent weeks that “the project was in trouble” in large part because there was no dedicated source of operating money, estimated to be at least $10 million a year, for the rail line after it was built.

Supporters said the light-rail line would spur major residential and commercial redevelopment along Woodward well in excess of what it would cost to build the line.“We’re basically throwing away a $3-billion economic development investment,” Owens said. “I’m outraged Mayor Bing would let this happen on his watch.”