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Detroit Light Rail Scaled Back To Streetcar

Streetcar

First Posted: 01/09/12 08:02 PM ET Updated: 01/09/12 09:14 PM ET

Detroit's proposed light rail system -- back from the grave more times than a character on As The World Turns -- would be revived as a shorter, 3.4-mile line that doesn't come close to the city's suburbs, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Friday.

Instead of a 9.3-mile, $550 million line that would have reached to the Motor City's 8 Mile Road, the new project is supposed to cost $125 million and terminate in the New Center neighborhood. M1 Rail, a group of private investors and philanthropies that has served as the driving force behind the project, has 90 days to come up with a plan.

M1 says it already has $80 million committed. Beyond its shortened length, however, the newest iteration of Detroit light rail comes with a catch: it won't, technically speaking, be light rail.

"I would call it a streetcar system," M1 executive Matt Cullen told The Huffington Post.

Instead of light rail's dedicated trackbed, streetcars have to vie with traffic to get riders where they're going. The streetcars will be on a track, but they'll also be on a roadway.

"It's initially going to be a circulator and a connector to our Amtrak station," Cullen said. "It won't be a commuter system for people out in the suburbs."

The streetcar will look much like M1's original rail proposal, from 2007, that was intended mostly to foster development along Woodward Avenue and not to help suburban commuters get to jobs in the city. That proposal was expanded after pressure from politicians in the city and in the suburbs.

Even if a streetcar system is built, commuters in the suburbs will have to rely on a bus rapid transit system, backed by Gov. Snyder as a replacement for the longer light rail corridor, to get into the city.

Cullen said he believes it's possible to extend the streetcar system, "if, over time, density and demand warrants an extension." In the meantime, he said, the bus rapid transit and streetcar systems "can be designed to operate very synergistically."

But Megan Owens, executive director of transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United, said she was skeptical that a curbside-running train without a dedicated right of way could ever be extended to the suburbs.

"We need to make sure that whatever's built first is built in a way that can be expanded," Owens said. "And if it's something that's going to take 20 minutes just to go three miles, that's not something that can work as well as regional rapid transit.

"The outpouring of support for light rail does give me some hope," Owens said, pointing to the region's members of Congress, instrumental in reviving the latest version of light rail. "I just hope we don't have to start from scratch with both this regional [bus rapid transit] and streetcar."

LaHood told the Detroit News on Monday that M1's backers would need to apply for federal funding support under the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program, which previously awarded $25 million for the light rail line.

LaHood suggested the administration would be receptive to the new applicatiuon. The catch is whether M1 can satisfy critics like Owens who are concerned a streetcar doesn't provide enough benefits to the region to be worthwhile.

"We will be in the room working with them," LaHood told the News. "We're just about over the goal line on the light rail -- but it has to be part of a regional focus."

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