Hopes are high for the Woodward Corridor - But obstacles remain
Published: February 23, 2011
Despite all the hype and hope for light rail along Detroit's Woodward corridor, there are major questions of funding. And there is also the daunting legacy of decades of mass transit hopes that haven't left the station.
The current plans are moving forward for a light rail train, the first leg to be constructed largely with private funds and running from downtown to New Center with connections to the downtown People Mover, the Amtrak station and city and suburban bus lines.
No formal plan for funding the new light rail system's operation has been put forward — yet — and more questions concern the track's second leg, which would continue to Eight Mile Road.
While transit advocates are hosting public informational meetings this month, the Bing administration is quietly, behind the scenes, shaping plans for funding both construction of the second leg and then operating the entire line with a combination of a local bond issue and hoped-for but as-yet-unsecured state and federal grants.
That's part of a plan that the administration is circulating to some Detroit City Council members and their staffs. The bond issue proposal could go before the council as early as this week.
Neither Bing nor his administration has made formal announcements about funding plans, at least in advance of the mayor's State of the City speech, to take place after this story went to press. But according to City Council members and staff who have had meetings with city administrators, proposals call for the council to issue bonds to fund construction and operation or to leverage future federal monies such as the New Starts grants or a second federal program that deals with transit construction and operation in urban areas.
One proposal for construction of the New Center to Eight Mile Road portion has about $330 million coming from federal sources, some $17 million from the state and roughly $59 million from the proposed local bonds.
"They have not brought the resolution to council, but that's probably going to come this week or the week after," says Detroit City Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr.
Another proposal being circulated by Bing's staff considers how to fund the system, since rider fees are expected to be at least $10 million a year short of covering the operation. One version of Bing's plan is to fund the rail line's operation with $2 million from the city's general fund, $5 million from the state, $3-5 million from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and $2-3 million from the state's gas tax.
SEMCOG's transit planner, Carmine Palombo, says the organization has not been approached about providing such funds. "I'm encouraged to learn they're putting together a plan. That's what they need to do," he says. "No one has said anything to us yet."
Comments and details on the funding plan from a number of key players have not been forthcoming. Metro Times was unsuccessful in reaching Norman White, Bing's chief financial officer who is the administration's point person on the light rail project. Matt Cullen, the spokesperson for the M1 Rail Corp., the private investors who are largely spearheading and funding the first phase of construction, did not return telephone calls or e-mails. And a Michigan Department of Transportation spokeswoman said she didn't know of any state funds committed beyond a $25 million federal grant that passed from the state to the city last year.
Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown says he has been told future federal grants would cover debt service on bonds the Bing administration wants the council to authorize soon.
"We have a real problem with the front-end loading of these costs without having an assurance that the grant money will stay consistent," Brown says. "We haven't seen anything in writing that the federal money will continue.
Getting on track
For years, activists and some government officials have been agitating for regional transit in southeast Michigan.
The People Mover, a downtown loop that runs but a few miles, remains the most advanced transit technology in the region: an elevated, automated train that is not interrupted by street traffic. But an effort a few years ago to extend it from its northern edge in Grand Circus Park to the Detroit Medical Center, Wayne State University and Henry Ford Health System's campus stalled when leaders didn't think it was "politically acceptable," says Marsden Burger, a transit consultant who originally came to Detroit to work on the People Mover when Coleman Young was mayor. "If the People Mover were expanded, it could provide higher service levels and could operate out of its existing operational fund," Burger says. "That's huge. It knocks away one of the prime problems of funding operations."
A second proposal for transit improvements for the region includes commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor with stops in Dearborn and Ypsilanti as well as a newly constructed station near Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The project has gotten a boost with federal funding of track improvements this year, Palombo says.
It's possible some "event service" — dedicated passenger trains for, say, University of Michigan football games or the Detroit Thanksgiving Day parade — could operate this year. But the plan, in the works for years, has not garnered full federal funding, the key to these massive projects.
And then there's the separate operation of the city and suburban bus systems, an administrative structure that dates back decades and results in some duplication of routes and service.
The proposed light rail up and down Woodward Avenue is the latest hope for the real start of a system that would connect the discrete existing parts: the People Mover, Amtrak and the city and suburban bus systems.
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