LaHood still optimistic about Woodward light-rail project

From The Detroit News:

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he is optimistic the M-1 Woodward Avenue light-rail project can still go forward, despite concerns raised by the federal government about the project’s feasibility.

In an interview Wednesday, LaHood told The Detroit News the city of Detroit has applied for a federal grant for about $25 million for the project. The Transportation Department will announce a new round of awards for transit projects in late May.

“We’re going to continue to work through this. We like every aspect of this project,” LaHood said. “The idea of making Woodward Avenue an economic corridor that people envision and have been planning for — we like very much.”

Last week, the U.S. Transportation Department told Michigan legislators and advocates of high-speed light-rail it has serious concerns about the Woodward project and doesn’t believe it is feasible in its current form.

LaHood said “right now I’m optimistic (that it will work) because everybody’s working hard.”

The Federal Transit Administration has concerns about cost — that M-1 advocates are potentially underestimating it — and that M-1 hasn’t determined what type of vehicle will be used.

The FTA raised its concerns last week during a 60-day status report that is part of a 90-day review. “They’ve made a lot of progress in 60 days,” LaHood said. “This is very good for Michigan and Metro Detroit.”

The transit administration also does not believe a January 2015 target date is achievable and transit officials have questions about the funding commitment on the private side M-1 says it has.

The M-1 advocates have 30 days to convince the federal government it can address its concern.

“Everybody’s working feverishly,” LaHood said. “The M-1 people are continuing to raise the private money.”

In late April, LaHood will convene another meeting with state, city and Michigan legislators on the M-1 project for an update.

A regional transportation authority for Metro Detroit “is long overdue,” he said. “It looks like things are falling into place.”

Laura Trudeau, senior program director for the Kresge Foundation in Detroit that has pledged $35.1 million for the M-1 project, said Friday backers are answering the concerns raised by the Transportation Department. She said backers have won $10 million in new pledges in recent weeks.

Trudeau said she believes that by the 90-day assessment mark set by federal officials in January backers will be able to show the project is viable.

The M-1 rail project is envisioned as part of a broader Metro area rapid bus transit system.

LaHood said in January the government will consider awarding Detroit’s light-rail project up to $25 million on top of $25 million awarded for a bus rapid transit system for Metro Detroit.

The government had awarded $25 million for Detroit light-rail as part of a 9.3-mile $500 million project that was to travel up Woodward Avenue to Eight Mile. But LaHood reallocated that grant to a bus rapid transit system.

Regional leaders last month 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.

But light-rail backers want to build the first 3.4-mile portion at a cost of $100 million in downtown Detroit.

Congressional aides said the M-1 plan assumes it will win the $25 million grant, which the FTA and LaHood say is not certain.

Despite the city’s financial difficulties, LaHood said regional mass transit makes sense “to jump start the city’s opportunities.”