Private support reignites Woodward light rail plan

From The Detroit News:

An abbreviated light rail project is back on the table for Detroit after a high-powered meeting Friday between the plan’s private backers and federal, state and local officials.

But the clock is ticking for investors Roger Penske, Dan Gilbert and other prominent business leaders, who have 90 days to convince governmental officials the M-1 rail project is viable in a city struggling to keep afloat financially.

Last month, the proposed light rail project along Woodward Avenue was scrapped in favor of a series of high-speed buses, drawing a chorus of criticism from regional transit advocates.

But after the meeting Friday in Detroit between U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Gov. Rick Snyder, Mayor Dave Bing and others, a plan for 3.4 miles of light rail along Woodward from the New Center area to downtown Detroit is now back under consideration.

Initial plans for a longer rail line from Eight Mile to downtown Detroit were estimated to cost $500 million.

“Some time ago, there was an announcement made that light rail is off the table,” Bing said.

“Based on the conversation that we’ve had today and the agreements we’ve had, we see light rail as a part of regional transportation. Light rail is not dead. … All of us are on the same page, understanding how important transportation is going to be in Detroit, southeastern Michigan and the state.”

The light rail supporters used the 90-minute session Friday to make their case and discuss the status of the project. Over the next 90 days, private investors will seek to convince state and federal officials of the need for the shorter section of the project.

The meeting also included U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing; U.S. Reps. John Conyers, D-Detroit, Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano.

“Transit is important to our state,” Snyder said. “It’s about working well together, and that’s what this meeting was about today. M-1 can be an important subcomponent and one (that) can be critical to the downtown future.

“We’re going to be working hard in Lansing working on doing a regional transit authority. At the same time, the M-1 group will be working hard over next 90 days to continue their plan to show how viable it is. Hopefully we’ll be able to merge them together.”

Peters said the project needs $125 million — including $25 million in federal funds — and business leaders have raised about $80 million. The group could seek support from the state or Metro Detroit communities to pay the operating costs of the plan, he said in a statement.

Peters praised the efforts of business leaders to make the project a reality, saying it could be a big boost to downtown Detroit development.

If successful, the bus rapid transit system in four counties and the M-1 light rail projects would proceed in tandem. Construction could start as early as this year, Peters said.

“I’m strongly encouraged that M-1 light rail is back on the table for Detroit,” Peters said. “The strong commitment of area business leaders to improving economic development in Detroit through an investment in light rail has helped drive consensus about the importance of public mass transit for our region.”

Penske, a motorsports mogul and CEO of the Penske Corp., said the conversation went well, noting he liked the “thought processes” surrounding the transportation issues.

“This was a chance for us to put back on the table the M-1 plan (and) giving us the chance for 90 days to validate our operating (and) capital costs in a project like this,” Penske said.

“What we wanted to do is be sure at the end of 90 days that we have a viable plan that meets all of the constituencies. Now it’s up to us to deliver the facts and then we’ll make the final decision in very short time.”

Last month, Bing, Snyder and LaHood scrapped the proposed light-rail system along Woodward Avenue in favor of a cheaper system of high-speed buses.

After working for months toward the $500 million M-1 Rail plan, leaders settled on a 34-station, four-line regional rapid bus system that would connect downtown Detroit with Macomb and Oakland counties and Detroit Metro Airport.

LaHood, in explaining the switch to the Michigan congressional delegation, last month said Detroit didn’t have the required funding to make a Metro area light-rail system work — either in matching funds or long-term operations.

Still, M-1 rail backers at the time pledged the bus plan allowed them to go back to their original idea — a shorter, less expensive rail system.

Originally, the plan called for 3.4 miles of track. But, with assurances of state and federal help, the plan expanded to the city’s north border and estimated costs grew to more than $500 million.

The light rail system was supposed to be underwritten by a $100 million investment from high-profile private investors, including Compuware founder Peter Karmanos and entrepreneur Mike Ilitch, to fund the first stretch of tracks from Hart Plaza to New Center.

Wayne State University and Henry Ford Hospital each committed $3 million in exchange for advertising at train stops. The semi-public Downtown Detroit Development Authority committed $9 million. The Kresge Foundation had promised $35 million.

One local transit advocate said Friday that light rail is just one aspect of providing adequate transportation throughout the region.

“It’s worth exploring, but without knowing the details it’s hard to evaluate how this fits in with our goal of having a well financed, well-operated transit system that will work,” said Ruth Johnson, assistant director and organizer for Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based advocacy group.

“We don’t see it as an either-or proposition. (Rapid transit) is important, but no more important than any other modes. But it’s the first and best shovel-ready project for our region.”

The bus plan still faces several hurdles: Michigan’s Legislature and suburban leaders have to sign off to make the deal a reality.

The bus system would be called the “Metro Connection Tri-County Triangle” and stretch from downtown Detroit along Gratiot to M-59 in Macomb County and up Woodward to Birmingham in Oakland County. A connecting line would run east-west through Sterling Heights and along M-59.

A fourth line would stretch from Detroit Metropolitan Airport through Dearborn and connect with the triangle lines.

The plan would include 16 stations in Wayne and nine each in Oakland and Macomb counties.

Detroit has struggled for more than 80 years trying to establish a subway or rail system. In 1976, President Gerald Ford offered southeastern Michigan $600 million for a rail system. The money was never used.

“People depend on their livelihood for this. This is about getting people to a job (and) all of the everyday needs of life, so transit is critically important,” Snyder said.

“It’s great to highlight the importance of transit because it is that critical connector and it is an economic development engine. You start with the basic necessities of helping people have a livelihood and you build on that.”