Cynical Synapse

Fri, 21 Jan 2011

Back to the Future: Transit Returning to Detroit

Filed under: Detroit, Economy, Government, History, Life, Politics, Transit — cynicalsynapse @ 4:38 pm

Concept M-1 light rail station at Grand Blvd.

On 20 January 2011, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a $25 million light rail grant for Detroit‘s M-1 transit project. The project takes its’ name from its route up Woodward Avenue which is state highway M-1. The grant is for the first phase to run from Hart Plaza, at the foot of Woodward by the Detroit River, and the New Center area, where GM’s headquarters once stood. Detroit’s Amtrak station is adjacent to Woodward in the New Center.

In announcing the grant, LaHood said:

Building this light rail system will create jobs for this great American city, and it will stimulate long-term economic growth by attracting investment to downtown Detroit and the New Center area.”

Most people opposed to the M-1 project point to the costly People Mover. Detroit’s People Mover is an elevated, automated train that runs in a loop around downtown. Opponents highlight cost overruns during construction, operating costs at least six times fare revenue, and low ridership. The naysayers say the M-1 project is doomed to the same fate. The People Mover has low ridership because its route was selected when Detroit’s downtown was vibrant. While there are still lively areas, many People Mover stops are not near businesses or attractions. From planning to opening day, it took 12 years to build the People Mover. Inflation certainly contributed to rising construction costs.

M-1 light rail project plan

Detroiter Thomas Page summed up the view of M-1 light rail proponents.

We have to have this if we want to be even a mediocre city, let alone a world class city. Real cities have rail systems. Even people who don’t use them want to live near transportation systems. If we don’t build this now, I don’t see much hope for Detroit or the state of Michigan.

As the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. Woodward Avenue has always been Detroit’s axis. It demarks the east and west sides. It is the address for Foxtown (the theater district), art and history museums (in the Cultural Center), and Detroit’s football and baseball stadia. There is commercial, office, and residential along most of Woodward in Detroit. Transit accessibility will help revitalize the areas in between the gems along Woodward. Detroit should incorporate\ transit-oriented development to manage redevelopment in between Woodward’s bright spots.

Street car on Woodward at 6 Mile

Rather than Woodward light rail becoming another white elephant like the People Mover, imagine the synergy of the systems feeding each other. Wouldn’t it be cool to park in a cheap lot, hop the M-1, transfer to the People Mover to Greektown for dinner? Then grab the People Mover back to the M-1 for a game or show at the Fox. And finally, take the M-1 back to your car and avoid the traffic jams around the lots by the stadium.

Planners of M-1 rail will start construction by the end of this year. They intend to have Detroit’s first light rail operational by 2016. Ironically, the Woodward street car line shut down 60 years earlier, the last of what once was the country’s largest street car operation. Who would have thought?

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