Detroit's crippled transit system has languished for decades, but a $25 million federal investment announced last week by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to help create a light rail line downtown is one sure sign that the Motor City is changing. Work is already underway on construction plans for the M-1 Rail project, which is expected to break ground in 2013.
But it almost didn't happen. Matt Cullen, CEO of both Detroit's Rock Ventures and the private group supporting the transit plan, said M-1's backers weren't sure if the project would ever materialize.
Twenty-three times before, legislators in Michigan had tried and failed to pass a regional transit authority for Southeast Michigan. That RTA was a requirement, LaHood said last year, for the federal government to commit any funds for the light rail project. The M-1 plan had previously been folded into a more massive, 9.3-mile-long light rail project in 2010, which was then totally scrapped in 2011.
"I mean, a year ago, literally, this thing was dead," said Cullen. "But amongst the leadership and those that are stakeholders and funders, they said, 'That's not acceptable to us.'"
"It's that important to us that we're going to keep pushing on this thing and we're going to get it over the goal line," he added.
The M-1 line will connect downtown Detroit to the New Center neighborhood via Woodward Avenue, from the Riverfront to Grand Boulevard. Supporters hope the 3.3-mile track is only the first phase of a system that would eventually connect Detroit to northern cities like Ferndale, Birmingham and Pontiac.
Cullen said project leaders are collecting information for an environmental assessment, although he says the term "environmental" is being used broadly.
"It's more the impact on the surrounding businesses and the community," he said. "It would look at an area and say, you shouldn't have a station here because it would block the beautiful Fox Theatre facade, or the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts]. Or that you shouldn't have one here because the vibrations would be an issue, but you need one here because it connects you into the bus transportation."
One decision regarding the rail line has already been made. Cullen says the track will run along the sides of Woodward, not through the middle of the road.
A stop-action video posted on YouTube last year argued that bringing the trains down the middle would improve pedestrian safety and improve the trains' speed. But Cullen said that argument was more relevant when the plan included high-speed commuter trains running from Detroit's northern border to the central business district. Proponents of the curbside rail, on the other hand, said drafting rail lines near the sidewalk would boost economic development along the corridor.
"When the first phase became clear that it was going to be a downtown connector, a sideline streetcar made a lot of sense," he said.
The rest of the $140 million needed to build the streetcar line will be funded through a public-private partnership -- called M-1 Rail -- aided by a consortium of donors and stakeholders led by Rock Ventures that includes the Kresge Foundation, Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, Compuware founder Peter Karmanos and Penske Corporation owner Roger Penske. LaHood remarked several times during his press conference last Friday in Detroit that city boosters had created an unprecedented level of financial support -- the most money donated for an urban transit system in U.S. history.
Cullen called the philanthropic investment in mass transit "impactful."
"I think the reason was to say, 'Hey, take it seriously. We will start it, but this is something we can build on as a community, going forward,'" he said.
M-1 Rail is hoping to involve many stakeholders in the project's planning process. The group is looking for a diverse collection of voices, including possible commuters, cyclists, nearby residents and a group Cullen described as "retailers that are thrilled with the fact that it's coming but terrified by the fact that the road might be out of commission for a period of a time."
Even considering mass transit's frustrating, often unfruitful past in Metro Detroit, Cullen said he is "positive" that the M-1 Rail plans will become reality. He compared the streetcar line's challenges over the past six years with the difficult, but ultimately successful revitalization of Detroit's East Riverfront.
"Once you get some momentum and people see what it could be, then they get passionate, they start being supportive, and the detractors and the obstacles start moving out of the way," he said. "I really think the same thing is going to happen with transit. I really believe that we have weathered the storm."