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Woodward Light Rail Line Canceled In Favor Of Rapid Bus System

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The Free Press reports that Detroit will cancel its plans to build a light rail line down Woodward Avenue in favor of beefing up the city's bus system.

Plans for the light rail project had called for a 9-mile length of track down Woodward Avenue. The project was overseen by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and included oversight from Mayor Dave Bing's office, City Council, and the M1 consortium of private investors that took on considerable development costs for the project. The Downtown Development Authority had also pledged $9 million in funding.

Megan Owens, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Riders United, released a statement late Tuesday slamming the decision.

"Mayor Bing has tossed away a $3 billion economic development opportunity that could have been the centerpiece of Detroit’s revitalization," she said.

According to the Free Press, the $528 million project was canceled after U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood expressed concern that Detroit would not be able to properly fund the rail line over the long term. LaHood previously granted $25 million to the project. And in October, SEMCOG won $2 million in federal dollars to study extending the line north to Birmingham.

Earlier this week, Detroit City Council interviewed candidates for project's board positions and named its two appointees on Tuesday.

In a statement, LaHood's spokesman said the secretary "is committed to working with Governor Snyder and Mayor Bing to help find safe and reliable solutions to the transit challenges facing the residents of the greater Detroit region."

Crain's reports M1, the group of private investors backing the project, have asked Bing and Snyder to consider a less-ambitious 3.2 mile light rail line rather than scrap the project altogether. Such a plan would provide light rail service from downtown to New Center.

Detroit will now focus on developing a rapid bus system instead, one that might run alongside the current Detroit Department of Transportation and SMART systems.
According to the Free Press, Bing spokesman Dan Lijana said Detroit residents "would be better served by high-speed buses instead of rail."

"Mayor Bing and Secretary LaHood have had numerous conversations and are on the same page on the future of transit in Detroit," Lijana told the paper.

In October, LaHood announced $6 million in grants to update DDOT buses and $5 million for SMART buses as part of $46.7 million in funding for transportation in the state of Michigan. That package also originally included the $25 for the Woodward Ave. light rail. The funding package prompted Snyder to call for a regional transportation authority that could better manage and oversee competing systems and projects.

Speaking in favor of a rapid-transit bus system at the time, Snyder called for the creation an organization "with the teeth and the commitment to coordinate existing bus services and permanent, dedicated regional funding to invest in rapid transit."

TRU's Owens criticized favoring rapid bus service over light rail, again citing economic development.

"Buses cannot serve as many people as quickly as light rail can (especially on a corridor as busy as Woodward) and costs more on a per-passenger-mile basis than light rail does (once built)," she said.

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All eyes have turned to Cleveland's rapid bus transit in a effort to make sense of what a similar system could look like in Detroit.

The Free Press has a piece praising the 3-year-old bus line as a "successful example":

After years of study, Cleveland opted for bus rapid transit over rail because of the cost.

Studies had estimated that a light-rail line would have cost 0 million for just 7 miles of rail, compared with the 0-million BRT line covering 9.2 miles.

The route has attracted more riders more quickly than many skeptics had predicted.

Last April, about 2 1/2 years after it opened, the HealthLine celebrated its 10 millionth rider. Ridership is up about 54% over the traditional bus line that the HealthLine replaced.

Read more here.

Light rail fans have lamented the development opportunity lost -- saying billion in economic development would have come from the Woodward line. But this article in the New York Times on Cleveland's system shows rapid buses can bring economic development, too.

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In the flurry of op-ed pieces penned over light rail and published since the cancellation announcement, a consensus opinion emerges: Light rail was a boondoggle, and buses make sense.

In the Detroit News, Daniel Howes writes killing the Woodward light rail line was "an overdue act of governmental euthanasia."

He continues:

Financial reality, a product of decades of failed leadership and denial, is forcing an overdue reappraisal of Metro Detroit's ridiculously counterproductive (and expensive) Balkanization. Just like the auto industry of three years ago, new leaders in the city and the state capital are looking at old questions with clear eyes and asking a simple question: Why?

Why does it make sense for an undercapitalized Detroit to subsidize an ineffective, dilapidated transit system? Could government dollars be leveraged to craft a regional system that benefits more people than M-1 light rail? Should the town whose companies are delivering electric cars, hybrid trucks and buses to the market become a national showcase for that technology instead of the tangled, grubby mess of warring fiefdoms it is?

Give Bing, Snyder, even the Obama administration credit for one thing: They're realists.

Over at Michigan Radio, Jack Lessenberry praises the decision to go with high speed buses:

I am convinced that canceling the project was absolutely the right decision, because they are offering something much more practical and perhaps even better in its place.

High speed buses. The plan now is to build a system of high-speed bus lanes all over the metropolitan area and equip it with a fleet of modern buses that are more comfortable, go much faster, and are equipped with technology that allow them to control traffic signals, so they don’t have to stop for red lights.

The rapid bus system can be built much faster and cheaper, and unlike the light rail plan, would thoroughly connect the city with the suburbs. The initial plan is to have nine stations each in Macomb and Oakland Counties and sixteen in Wayne County, which includes Detroit. The system might also go to Pontiac and Ann Arbor.

And Philip Lauri at Detroit Lives offers some constructive criticism, pointing to the success of rapid transit buses in Cleveland and Colombia:

I've spent time in Bogota, and let me tell you, the TransMilenio (the name of the line) is actually remarkably efficient, timely, easy to use and pretty slick. Buses have a dedicated lane and station, and quite frankly, it feels just like a rail line would -- it just costs a heck of a lot less (an average of .5 million per mile while light rail average costs are .8 million per mile) and moves on multiple rubber wheels instead of some rail track.

So maybe forget about pouring one out for light rail and get in the mood for fast, efficient buses instead. We recommend re-watching "Speed."

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Much of the discussion around canceling light rail has been about money -- Detroit doesn't have enough to keep such a system running; a more regional transit would bring state and federal dollars; the cost estimates for the train line were misleadingly low.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Mayor Dave Bing, and others have suggested that the proposed rapid bus transit system is simply a smarter move for the city -- and will give more bang for its buck.

The Free Press reports:

The plans LaHood showed lawmakers included a proposal for 34 stations, all with electronic signs showing routes and real-time, GPS-based information on bus arrival and departure times. Some of the stations were large enough to have rest rooms. Hertel [John Hertel, general manager SMART] said the system would be "a much more effective use of the money."

"You're going to get 110 miles for the same price as 9 miles, for a service that will carry the same number of passengers at the same speed, and it's going to serve four counties and the city."

Carmine Palombo, the director of transportation studies for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said bus rapid transit offers a decided cost advantage over light rail.

"You could build two or three BRT lines potentially for what it would cost to build just one light-rail line," Palombo said.

Read more here.

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The Free Press spoke with Dan Gilbert, one of the investors behind the M1 group, about the light rail cancellation, and he says M1 isn't giving up.

Gilbert said the decision to cancel the project was "disappointing, and I don't think it serves the interests of Detroit."

Much recent progress in downtown and Midtown resulted "because people believed this line was coming in and finally believed Detroit was going to get their act together and grow up like a real big urban center and have these kinds of things that are important for people who live, work and play down here," Gilbert told the Free Press.

Read more here.

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U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) released a full statement on the plans to nix the light rail project.

"I firmly believe that the use of high speed light-rail needs to be looked at in depth before scrapping it,” said Conyers. “High speed rail should be our first option for major transit, if at all possible. Even though the option of rapid bus transit is a practical first step in providing transit options for the Detroit Region, it is not the ultimate solution. If, after careful examination, rapid bus transit is the only option that can move forward, the completion of the 3.2 mile portion of the light-rail proposal connecting downtown and New Center must be a part of the overall plan.

"I believe the Mayor and the Governor should reexamine the financing options for the Woodward Corridor project to see whether it is feasible to construct some or all of the rail line. It would be premature to scrap the light-rail project completely in favor of a bus rapid transit system without such an analysis.

"As currently proposed, this project would be funded by a combination of private and public funds, including a 0 million dollar private sector investment. It would bring billion in new economic development to the region and would permanently improve the city’s financial situation by providing an estimated to million a year in new tax revenue. Construction of the Woodward Line would also play an important step in finally connecting our region together via one comprehensive mass transit system.

"Over the past few years, I have worked with other federal, state, and local officials to finally provide the people of Detroit and its surrounding communities with better options when it comes to having access to affordable, reliable mass transportation. We must ensure that this effort continues to move forward."

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M1, the group of private investors backing the light rail project with millions of dollars, wrote a letter to Gov. Snyder and Mayor Bing asking them to reconsider.

We believe, however, that it remains possible to achieve a rail circulator project that can have incredibly significant economic development and mobility impacts in Downtown Detroit as well as the regional Bus Rapid Transit project. We believe that we can have a win-win -- and avoid the reality and perception of loss that would follow the cancellation of the Woodward Avenue rail project.

They also requested to move forward with a 3.4 mile stretch of light rail, which they said "can be completed at a cost of approximately 5 million."

"There is sufficient funding to pay for the capital cost of the project and operating expense as part of a regional authority or until an authority is created."

Read the full text of the letter here.

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The Free Press reports that U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) is still somewhat optimistic about light rail's chances in the city. Conyers, along with other members of Michigan's congressional delegation, met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday to discuss the city's canceling of the light rail plans.

"I don't think it's dead, it's under discussion," Conyers said, according to the paper.

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday the million he had earmarked in October for the Woodward light rail line could instead be used for the proposed regional rapid bus system.

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@ mayordavebing : Discontinuing the light rail project was a difficult decision. Nonetheless, we believe we made the right decision for Detroit & SE MI.

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Sen. Carl Levin, who has supported the light rail effort released a statement Wednesday after meeting with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

I continue to believe that a world-class transit system that includes light rail along the Woodward Avenue corridor can deliver significant economic benefits to Detroit and the region. I support the efforts of private investors to preserve the viability of the light-rail project. Today I asked Secretary LaHood to delay any decision until the investors’ ideas and concerns, outlined in their letter to Governor Snyder and Mayor Bing, receive a response. I will make the same request of the mayor and the governor.

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