Hopes are high for the Woodward Corridor - But obstacles remain
Published: February 23, 2011
"If we're going to do it, it's got to be part of the broader regional transit vision," Cockrel says.
As outlined by Mayor Dave Bing's staff in meetings with City Council's staff, the 9.3 miles of the Woodward Light Rail project from Jefferson Avenue to 8 Mile Road could cost $450 million to $500 million to construct.
To date, private investors have pledged about $125 million, earmarked for the first phase, although the exact amounts and terms of all the funds haven't been determined or secured.
Through a stimulus grant announced last year, $25 million of federal funding also is committed for the first stretch, bringing the total project funding to about $150 million, which supporters say covers the construction costs. If all goes according to the latest schedules, the line could be open for riders in 2013.
Construction is scheduled to begin this fall, although Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United (TRU), a nongovernmental advocacy group, says the groundbreaking could be "ceremonial" only.
"I don't know if they'll be completely ready this fall, and I don't know how much real construction they can do over the winter," she says. "Folks at DDOT [Detroit Department of Transportation] keep saying construction 'could' start this fall and that the 'goal' is to start this fall."
The Federal Transit Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has expressed interest in the rail initiative as it continues beyond New Center as part of a program called New Starts, which could cover as much as 60 percent of the project's capital costs. No funds, so far, are committed, although the recently released preliminary environmental impact statement is one of the early steps of the process for the federal New Starts money to be awarded.
Still, the future availability and amounts of New Starts grants are hardly assured with the new Congress' budget-cutting agenda, not to mention the question of who controls the White House after 2012. President Obama has been friendly to urban and mass transit projects, but a new president may not share the priority.
Regardless, Bing's staff anticipates having New Starts money for the second phase of the rail project and has presented plans for construction and operational funding based on such funds beyond the initial stretch of the rail line to New Center.
The best-case scenario for beginning the second phase's construction is at least a few years away, with riding it possible in 2016.
TRU, along with the Michigan Environmental Council and Transportation for America, are in the midst of hosting a series of community forums where people can learn more about the project and ask questions that Owens and others answer when they can. They're focusing on the first phase: the Jefferson to New Center segment, as the configuration of the southern terminus isn't finalized — and it hasn't been decided if the track will run at curbside or in the middle of the street.
Meanwhile, part of the New Starts application process, which city officials hope will eventually fund the second phase, is the recently completed preliminary environmental impact statement that was formally presented Feb. 12, at two hearings attended by about 400 people at Detroit Public Library.
Attendees viewed poster-sized renderings of proposed routes — including where track would run in the street (curbside or in the middle) and the configuration of the tracks downtown, which has not been finalized.
Federal and city officials also presented the results of the preliminary environmental impact study released earlier this year. The study, required by the federal New Starts process, found no major negative environmental impacts from the project.
Public comments were limited to three minutes. "A response to all verbal and written comments received by the March 14 deadline will be published in the final environmental impact statement scheduled for completion in early May 2011," says Tricia Harr, a planner with the Federal Transit Authority, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Owens calls the process "an accelerated timeline" and says it's evidence the federal government is interested in the Detroit project.
"But there does need to be a financial plan," she says. "The first phase is pretty solid in terms of both the construction and operational funds. Extending it, there will need to be new revenue somewhere, and it's a little unclear right now where that will be from."
Mapping it out
In theory, the M1 Corp. has gotten commitments for about $125 million in private investment for Phase One of the light rail train system planned on Woodward Avenue.
Those monies can be considered part of a "local match" for future federal grants and as such are important for leveraging such funds.
But not all of the money is actually secured, despite the $125 million figure being included in project descriptions and public information.
"We have committed in dialogue. I don't have a contract yet. We have not signed a legal agreement," says William Schramm, senior vice president of strategic business development at Henry Ford Health System.
Schramm says Ford and several other private investors were offered "sponsorship" of certain stations, in part, in exchange for their financial commitment which could include naming rights or advertising space. M1 corporation executives have been working on those deals.
Finalized station locations are part of what will be released in May, but preliminary plans call for about a dozen between New Center and the riverfront with one roughly every mile north of New Center.
With reported interest from the Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University in addition to the Henry Ford Health System, conversations have included discussing how those entities could tie their existing shuttle services into the light rail stops or otherwise access the rail tracks, for instance with their own transit spurs.
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