M-1 on track for groundbreaking in Detroit

From The Detroit News:

Here's an artist's rendition of the proposed streetcar line on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. (From M-! Rail.)
Here’s an artist’s rendition of the proposed streetcar line on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
(From M-! Rail.)

The M-1 Rail project is inching closer to reality, organizers say, with a groundbreaking planned this summer that will rebuild a portion of Woodward Avenue and add sleek streetcars.

Officials won’t reveal when construction will begin — the road will be completely rebuilt from Adams past West Grand Boulevard. But they say they are down to a couple of vendors to build the streetcars and are close to securing the $140 million of mostly philanthropic money needed for the public-private project.

After six years of debate, delays and changes, M-1 Rail officials and others say the 3.3-mile route that once was considered to extend to Eight Mile and connect to other rail lines could be the catalyst to jump-start alternative modes of mass transit and convince a dubious public these types of projects can get done.

“Once it’s up and running, it will be over the top,” said Paul Childs, chief operating officer of the project, which will have 12 stops and 20 stations (at four stops, trains in both directions will share a station). “We’re confident about that.”

Only utility work has been done along the route. And there have been plenty of hiccups — such as scaling back a plan to extend the route to Eight Mile — even with the financial backing of business titans such as Roger Penske and Dan Gilbert.

Pat Baldwin of Detroit said she would use the streetcar to help get to and from work. She has seen many transportation plans start with great interest and then fizzle. She’d love to see the line eventually extend to Eight Mile and beyond.

“I’m sure they’ll build the first phase,” she said. “It kind of reminds me of the People Mover situation. It kind of goes nowhere, but it goes just a little somewhere. And the idea was to have it expanded and it never did. I just don’t want the M-1 Rail to get stuck like that.

“I think some powers that be are resistant to having mass transit,” she added. “I don’t think we can become a true cosmopolitan city without it.”

False starts and challenges

Matthew Cullen, president and CEO of Rock Ventures and a member of the M-1 board of directors, said the project will happen. But he understands how people who have heard much about the M-1 over the years could doubt that streetcars, which once were common in the city, will ever get done.

“I don’t blame people for being skeptical,” Cullen said. “The way you overcome that is to get it done.”

Childs said the goal of the streetcar line was always intended to be shorter, but at some point in the future it could be extended. Along with working with the federal, state and city officials on everything from permits to underground and utility work, M-1 officials have been coalescing residents and business owners in anticipation this project will happen.

“With any project, you always wonder if you’re going to get to the end,” Childs said. “But you come on to a project like this, particularly these public-private partnerships, with the firm belief that your vision’s going to come to fruition.”

The streetcar concept, executed successfully in such cities as Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis, took root in 2007 with business and others leaders who wanted to better connect downtown Detroit with Midtown and prompt business and residential growth along Woodward. The M-1 group was formed in 2008.

The road — or track — to creating this light rail trolley line was paved with challenges. There was support to extend the rail line nine miles to a light rail transit system and millions in federal funding went into the $500 million project.

But in 2011, with the city’s financial struggles and the fact that no regional transit agency was up and running, the effort died. The following year, the shorter streetcar route was revived with strong business backing.

Design hasn’t been chosen

The design of the streetcars has yet to be chosen, but they will be double-ended with doors on both sides with 12 stops through several stations that will be built to fit the aesthetics and historical value of the area. So each station will be sized and shaped differently, organizers said.

At the end of each stop, the trains won’t turn around; rather, the trolley operator will move from one end to the other and drive it the other way. Some parts of the route will stop at stations and run in the center lane of Woodward while other parts will run along the right side of the road.

Megan Owens, the executive director of the nonprofit Transportation Riders United organization that advocates for improved mass transit in Metro Detroit, said there was a lot of doubt the project would see the light of day given all the funding struggles.

She admits “there is a perception of ‘I will believe it when I see it’” out among the public but Owens is “95 percent certain” the rail line will be operational in 2016 and sees it as “transformational” because it will undoubtedly kick start other transit projects.

“There’s still a possibility that something could fall apart but given the smart and powerful people behind it, they have certainly been doing an aggressive job of working through all the problems,” Owens said. “If something were to fall through, it would be really devastating.”

Owens said communication about the project has improved considerably because organizers have hired community liaisons to meet regularly with the public.

Cullen said the financial pieces are nearly in place as they are finalizing the remaining commitments for the money. Money is needed not only to build the rail line and rebuild parts of Woodward, but also to maintain the operation. “There are lots of moving parts, but we really are getting tremendous momentum now,” he said.

Anxious for operation

John Kewish has owned Grace Harper Florist in Midtown for decades. He’s heard the streetcar project talked about for years and never thought it would come to fruition.

Kewish said he’s elated the street will be repaved and other improvements are to be made but he’s worried about increased traffic and disruption during construction.

“I’m a little apprehensive on the whole thing and the real value of it, but I understand it’s going to bring a lot of people downtown,” Kewish said. “I’m well aware of the benefits of it, but I wish they’d make it go all the way to Pontiac.”

Leo Hanifin, a member of the M-1 board who has been studying and pushing for improved mass transit in Metro Detroit for years, said the trolley can give an economic and image boost to a city that has been mired in its own financial struggles.

But Hanifin also sees another potential benefit: selling mass transit to a skeptical region since M-1 is expected to be operational when the Regional Transit Authority plans to seek a funding referendum in Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and Washtenaw counties in 2016.

“If people can get a personal experience on (the M-1 rail) in southeastern Michigan, it will help them to form and develop an appreciation for the systems that people across the country are enjoying and benefiting from,” Hanifin said.

“There’s a different dynamic occurring in the city whereby business leaders and political leaders are cooperating far more than they have in the past and some of that is bearing fruit. And M-1 is a good example of that.”