With over a week still remaining, September has already proven to be an important month for the future of the Woodward Avenue light rail project. Yet it remains to be seen whether there will even be light rail on Woodward in the near future.
The month began with a victory for the project, as the Federal Transit Authority issued a Record of Decision approving the city's Environmental Impact Statement detailing plans for the rail's construction. The approval was a necessary step for this project to have any chance of being realized, but many obstacles remain.
Most of the issues facing the project can be attributed to disagreement between the groups leading and financing it. These include the Detroit Department of Transportation, the FTA, local suburbs, a group of private investors, and even Congress.
The major issues with the plans are the result of discord between DDOT and M1 Rail, a group of private investors and who's who of powerful Detroit business figures and institutions. Among M1's members are Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans; Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars and owner of several Detroit sports teams; Roger Penske, founder of the Penske Corporation; and the Kresge Foundation. These private investors have pledged $100 million to the project, a crucial sum that establishes the project's eligibility for certain federal funds.
One point of contention between these parties is the location of the rail line along Woodward. M1 Rail has argued for the trains to run along the sides of Woodward to increase commercial activity, while DDOT insists on having the trains in the center of Woodward for rider safety reasons. As a result, the Environmental Impact Statement included four separate potential rail plans, with the number of stops varying from 16 to 21. The city's preferred plan calls for trains running along the curb between downtown and New Center and in the middle of the road from New Center to 8 Mile Road, raising questions about how the two will be linked. Oakland County is currently looking into extending the line as far as Birmingham, which could impact the plans for the rest of the rail.
Further complicating the project is the matter of its leadership. M1 Rail is widely reported to be dissatisfied with the city of Detroit's handling of the project. The Detroit City Council is opposing Mayor Dave Bing's proposal for an agency to oversee the project, worried that it gives him too much authority. And just last week, an FTA official announced that establishing a regional agency to oversee public transit in the Metro area will be necessary for the rail's success (though not essential for federal funding).
Presumably to address these worries about the project's leadership, news outlets are reporting that Mayor Bing has decided to place the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation in charge of the light rail project. This decision has been met with mixed reviews. Some experts believe that this move will lock in the support of M1 Rail, as the DEGC is well-respected by local business leaders for their work on several recent major downtown revitalization efforts. But others are cautioning that this may place the project's federal funding in jeopardy, as the FTA had been helping DDOT expedite the process of applying for funds and reaching the current deadline may not happen.
Regardless of the DECG's efforts, federal funding may not even be available for the project if some House Republicans have their way. The New Starts program, from which DDOT hopes to win $318 million in grants, is being targeted by some GOPers as part of their larger efforts to reduce government spending.
Interestingly, activity surrounding the proposed light rail has increased just as the only current transit rail in Detroit appears to be nearing its demise. The People Mover will likely see drastically reduced or even terminated service come December due to insufficient funds, despite a 50% fare increase that will begin in November. Despite all the uncertainty and disagreement surrounding the Woodward Avenue light rail, it seems safe to say that no one involved wants this project's legacy to mirror that of the People Mover.
(All sources for this article are hyperlinked. Subscriptions may be required for content from Crain's Detroit. The eighth link includes a helpful visual of the proposed rail line's route.)