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David Kiley

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Woodward Light Rail Not Dead Yet -- Should it Be?

Posted: 04/24/2012 8:34 am

The light rail project that would run for three miles up and down Woodward Ave. is not dead yet. But I think it should be.

The private sector group backing the project has said that it not only has the money to build the line, but it is also pledging $5.1 million a year to run the train line through 2025. The biggest reason Mayor Dave Bing and Gov. Rick Snyder attempted to kill the project last December was concern over annual operating costs of a rail line many think few will actually use, saddling the city with another white elephant.

I don't live in Detroit. But I go down to the city often for business and pleasure. When I drive North to South on Woodward, through the blocks that support Wayne State and the College of Creative Studies, I think to myself: "It's here. The start of a real comeback and resurgence is here. Colleges, ballparks, theaters, the Opera House, some restaurants I love, Henry the Hatter, and so on. It's here and this corridor is where it's at."

When the rail project was killed by Bing and Snyder, the money -- the mayor and governor said --would be diverted to southeast Michigan to oversee a new network of rapid-transit buses on Woodward, Michigan Avenue, Gratiot and Hall Roads, connecting Detroit to key suburbs, Metro Airport and Ann Arbor.

It's hard to argue the need for that when we read stories in the daily papers about people without cars having a terrible time getting to their precious jobs because of interrupted or inadequate bus coverage. A three-mile light rail that runs in a straight line would not help those people much.

I am a big fan of rail. I love traveling Europe, for example, by train and get by without a car when I can. I used to live in New Jersey and commuted by train to New York City.

But I am dubious of the real life benefits of the light rail project. I fear it will become another "People Mover." A ride to nowhere.

Europe was designed, city to city, to be reached by train. That's why the system works so well. We don't have much in the way of urban transportation planning in the U.S. We are terrible at it. We have suburban sprawl everywhere in the U.S., which makes the automobile a necessity to navigate.

There are encouraging signs of growth in Detroit. General Motors' ad agencies have located downtown. Quicken Loans has increased its office space needs. Chrysler is reportedly looking to locate more than 1,000 employees downtown. A thousand here and a thousand there, and it all adds up.

But those working in Detroit who don't live in the city will still bring their cars. So, what is needed, in all likelihood, are additional parking garages.

I'd like to think that the Woodward Ave. light rail is the start of a web of light rail, and that people could come to avoid traffic on I-94, I-96 and I-75 on their way to Detroit. But I don't see it. I don't see it increasing the population of Detroit, or improving the public schools or defeating violent crime.

The project looks great on paper, and even better in a computer-generated rendering provided by the project's backers. But life in Detroit is not lived on paper. And money is finite. Let's spend it wisely.

Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.

 
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