The cancellation of plans for a light rail line running down Detroit's Woodward Avenue may be something of a blessing in disguise for the Motor City, advocates and transit experts say.
On Wednesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met with Michigan lawmakers and to announce that Detroit and the state had agreed to cancel the light rail system for a cheaper, potentially much longer, regional bus rapid transit (BRT) system. The backers of the proposed M1 light rail system and other members pf the business community reacted with dismay, saying they had not been consulted on the decision.
Whether the proposed BRT system can be as beneficial to the region as some say light rail would have been will depend on whether Gov. Rick Snyder and Mayor Dave Bing are truly committed to building a gold standard system.
It will also depend on how well bus boosters can sell their preferred transit plan to a city and a region disappointed in the loss of light rail.
"The image of the bus in the U.S. is really poor," admitted Annie Weinstock, co-author of a recent report from the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy about BRT. "When people think about riding really high quality transit, they think, 'let's build a train.'"
Detroit's existing buses have languished under the city's leadership. One riders' advocacy group reported that 90 percent of buses on some lines consistently ran late.
But Weinstock said BRT is different. Advocates for such systems have seen their fortunes rise over the past decade as more and more American cities look to the successful examples of BRT in places like Bogota, Colombia and Curitiba, Brazil.
True BRT systems run their buses on separated roads, which means they can go faster than regular buses. (Nationally, bus speeds average just 12.7 miles per hour.) They also feature snazzier designs and more well-appointed stations, meaning they could attract a more diverse ridership.
Here's how BRT will be sold to metro Detroit.
Once Detroit's 9.3-mile light rail system was built -- at a cost of some $550 million -- the city would have been forced to chip in about $10 million a year to cover operating costs. And there were no guarantees the system would have come in on-budget. A 7.4-mile light rail in Norfolk, Va., that opened in August, for example, cost $100 million more than expected.
Details so far on the projected cost of the BRT alternative are scarce, but the governor's office has indicated that a 110-mile BRT system could be built for less than $500 million. Detroit will be able to spend a $25 million federal TIGER grant received earlier this year on the BRT system instead. So some money is already available -- even if the private investors behind M1 rail line pull the $100 million they had pledge in support off the transit table.
"People may prefer light rail, but it doesn't mean that we can afford it as a country, or especially cities like Detroit, which prefer a lot of things that are unaffordable," said Weinstock.
The 110 miles of Snyder's proposed BRT system, also supported by Mayor Dave Bing, would connect Detroit to far-flung suburbs in Macomb and Oakland County and to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus. Light rail would have stopped at the city's limits, at 8 Mile Road, though there had been some discussion of extending the line further up Woodward.
Involving a city's suburbs in a transit plan is important for two reasons, according to blogger Yonah Freemark, who runs the website The Transport Politic.
"It's very important to create an atmosphere of regional solidarity around transportation projects, and it didn't seem like the light rail plan was doing that," he said.
Although officials in Oakland County were intrigued about the idea of extending light rail their way, there was no chance they would have helped Detroit pay operating costs for the segment of the rail line within the city limits.
That "regional solidarity" mantra is doubly important for a metro region like Detroit's, where the suburbs have often been turned against the city in often charged debates over state funding. A bus system that includes the suburbs in a transit plan from the start avoids that obstacle.
Also key: access to jobs in both the city and the suburbs. Bing cited the 60 percent of Detroiters in the workforce commute to jobs in the suburbs as a major motivation for going with BRT over light rail.
"The people of Detroit need to be able to get to the jobs in the suburbs," said Freemark. "One of the problems in Detroit is that too many of the jobs left the center city for the suburbs, so people need to be able to access them."
Detroit ranked 73rd out of the top 100 metro regions in the United States in terms of transit coverage and access to jobs, according the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. Only 22 percent of jobs in the region are reachable via transit in 90 minutes or less.
One reason to prefer light rail to the bus system is that BRT has nowhere near the same reputation for fostering transit-oriented development, economic growth spurred by and concentrated around transit lines.
The well-connected backers of M1, including the Kresge Foundation, Roger Penske, and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, sought to re-orient development in Detroit focused on the Woodward corridor. But their attempt to concentrate economic growth around a few stations in the urban core would have gone up against years of population flight to the city's suburbs.
So far, there are no indications M1's backers would be willing to transfer any of the $100 million in private funds they pledged for light rail to the bus system. They may instead try to go it alone in building their own, shorter light rail route.
Successful redevelopment of Detroit's central artery based on light rail would be tricky, said Weinstock. Even though Woodward Ave. has a reputation as an up-and-coming corridor, it is still marked by long stretches of vacant storefronts. A train station by itself, she said, is not enough to spur development.
"You have to have some demand to begin with. It has to have some initial success for the development to be generated. Otherwise it's just a train or a bus running back and forth," she said.
But BRT fans point to positive, bus-centered developments elsewhere, saying the systems, if done well, can spur economic growth. In Bogota and in Mexico City, Weinstock noted, development is happening near BRT stations. Cleveland claims its BRT has attracted $4.3 billion in development.
The bottom line, the experts say, is even light rail could only have accomplished so much.
"No city's problems can be solved with transit investments," Freemark said. "Detroit has really systemic problems that are going to continue whatever transportation system is chosen."