Guest Editorial: Detroit Needs Light Rail to Compete

Many Detroiters are disappointed that the city’s Woodward Avenue light rail plans were nixed last week, as a result of funding concerns. Mayor Dave Bing and federal officials have decided instead to build some 110 miles of bus rapid transit connecting the city to suburban job centers. Last week on Streetsblog, I argued this was essentially a hard, but understandable choice, given the region’s woeful existing transit system.

Rust Wire reader, Detroit resident and a recent graduate of Ohio State University Nicholas Miller disagrees, to some extent, saying Detroit needs light rail — right away — in order to compete. Here’s what Miller had to say:

As you may have heard, Detroit’s excitedly awaited Woodward Light Rail was nixed last week by Mayor Bing and Federal Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood in favor of a 110-mile regional Bus Rapid Transit System. Officials expressed concern that the original 3-mile light rail plan wouldn’t connect Detroiters with suburban jobs, which is odd because the original proposal (which was awarded federal funding) wasn’t about connecting people with suburban jobs at all. It was about holding a carrot out to private developers so as to develop Midtown Detroit into a truly urban neighborhood. It wasn’t about connecting what already exists, but about building the transportation framework for what could be.

The unsettling part about these developments is that this is a classic case of the right hand of the government not knowing what the left hand is doing, or at least not synergizing with it. SEMCOG (the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments) has been steadily progressing on a plan to build a commuter rail line that will connect Ann Arbor with the New Center neighborhood of Detroit. The route will have stops in Ypsilanti, the Metro Detroit Airport, the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn and New Center. SEMCOG has already purchased and refurbished passenger cars for the line. Further, the State has won federal funding to upgrade the already-existing rail alignment to shorten transit times. SEMCOG is now moving forward with designs for station upgrades. Once up and running, this line will connect major universities (The University of Michigan, Wayne State and Eastern Michigan University), regional hospitals (University of Michigan Medical Center, Detroit Medical Center), cultural assets (the Henry Ford Museum and the DIA), and major job centers (Dearborn, New Center, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and the Metro Detroit Airport). This system is also being funded outside the caustic negotiating environment of SMART and DDOT.

That whole plan sounds coincidentally like what is needed to connect Detroit with job centers in its Northern suburbs. Further, there are rail alignments that almost fully parallel the street-running route of the proposed BRT system. If regional job connectivity is what the city and Federal Transportation Administration truly desire, the SEMCOG Commuter Rail project should be expanded to connect Detroit with the jobs in its far-flung Northern Suburbs. This would also effectively connect the northern and western sections of the region, enhancing both projects.

Simply put, it is highly doubtful that buses or street-running light rail will be capable of moving fast enough and/or be cost effective solutions to connect places as spread out as Sterling Heights and Downtown Detroit. Further, cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston don’t attempt to make the same transit system work as both a conveyance of people to regional job centers and as a car-replacing urban transit system. They all have separate regional rail and urban transit systems.

The original light rail proposal – which was only intended as a system that would be useful for getting around the urban core of Detroit – should be revived and make use of the generous philanthropic support that is still on the table ($100 million). Detroit desperately needs to create a neighborhood that will be attractive to new residents and the class of creative entrepreneurs that are driving the global economy. Otherwise, we’re really only helping people to abandon and overlook the city. To accomplish this goal, Detroit will need to overcome its overall financial crisis; no easy feat. However, I truly doubt the BRT system, which is envisioned as a cheap alternative to light rail, will do much of anything to attract new investment or residents to the city. After all, SMART buses are already pretty dependable and quite rapid, as they make only minimal stops within the city. It also doesn’t sound like the stakeholders are envisioning something like Cleveland’s BRT, which at around $200 million included attractive stations, a priority signaling system, sleek vehicles and overall street beautifications. That price tag was for only seven miles. It’s hard to imagine that the $600 million budget for the proposed 110 mile BRT system will accomplish building a system anywhere as nice.

Cities across the country and around the world are all endeavoring to offer their residents real, effective transportation options, even traditionally car-centric cities like Dallas, Phoenix and Tampa have built commuter rail, light rail and streetcars. Detroit needs to keep up and compete with these and other places. A regional rail system and a smaller light rail system along Woodward would complement each other, offer true regional connectivity, promote transit-oriented development near regional rail stations, and attract the urban-loving class of creative entrepreneurs to our city and region.

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