» Light rail or streetcar approach for a project whose proponents claim would restore the health of this city’s core?
Unlike similar projects in nearby cities like Cincinnati, Detroit’s planned light rail line for Woodward Avenue has near-universal support from just about everyone in local and state government — even though it is being constructed in a city that is shedding population quickly. The $528 million route, which would by 2016 extend 9.3 miles from downtown to the city’s borders at 8 Mile, has been the priority of regional transportation planners for years. And with federal support for the first phase of the corridor announced in February 2010, construction is supposed to begin later in 2011, at least for the 3.4-mile section from Hart Plaza to Grand Avenue.
Aligning the project with other transit offerings in Downtown Detroit, however, has become a contentious issue. The Detroit DOT, which is running the Woodward Rail project in cooperation with a private entity called M-1 Rail (which has contributed much of the funds for the start-up line), will recommend later this month the preferred alignment — and decide whether it will run in its own lanes in the median of Woodward or along the street’s edges.
The first controversy — just where the line should go once it reaches downtown — is the result of years of indecision and missteps about just how transportation planning should evolve in the Detroit region. The much-maligned People Mover, an automated rail line that since 1987 has been circling aimlessly around downtown in a one-way loop, was built to distribute passengers coming in from a Woodward rail line decades ago, but the latter project is of course only being built now. In the meantime, the city constructed the (beautiful) Rosa Parks bus transit center in 2009, but neglected to put it along Woodward (despite the fact that rail was being planned at the time), instead locating it a few blocks away in Times Square. On the other hand, the metropolitan area transportation plans suggest a bus rapid transit line along Gratiot Avenue that would terminate at Campus Martius Park, right on Woodward.
Thus three options for the rail line’s downtown alignment are being considered, as shown below. In response to the Detroit DOT’s insistance that the rail line serve the bus center, the first two options would loop from Woodward onto Washington Street and then turn along Congress and Larned Streets to form a two-way loop running from the Cobo Convention Center to the Municipal Building. The fact that this route would parallel the People Mover almost directly — eliminating its very limited raisons d’être — should be bothersome to anyone who is paying attention.
The other possibility, which would run trains directly down Woodward, would be cheaper and faster (because of a shorter track length), and it would at least attempt to provide a downtown service that does not duplicate the People Mover. Though it would not connect directly to the bus station, it would allow transfers to the future BRT. And it would serve to highlight Campus Martius, which has been the focus of downtown revitalization.
Also raising challenges in Detroit has been the question of how the rail line meets the street downtown: Will it run in the median of Woodward, in its own right-of-way (as planned for the sections of the route further out), or will it run along the curb in lanes shared with automobiles, like a streetcar?
The M-1 financiers, whose $100 million downpayment on the initial line’s construction was more than the city’s $73 million or the U.S. government’s $25 million, have suggested that putting the trains adjacent to the sidewalk would, in the words of the Detroit Free Press, “boost tourism and redevelopment.” This claim is based on the highly questionable assumption that people are afraid to cross the street (a logic that denies the fact that riders would of course have to cross the street on the way back) and the assertion that packing eight stops on the 3.4-mile trip between Hart Plaza and Grand Avenue would be more beneficial than installing five there. Stations every half mile or so are considered standard for light rail lines in the centers of U.S. cities.
To a group of local enthusiasts who have created a Lego-based video advocating “trains down the middle,” the answer is obvious: The median alignment would be safer, faster (by 2 minutes 30), and less likely to be encumbered by automobile traffic. Their logic is sound. The fact that the route would remove two lanes for automobiles does not seem to be the issue, fortunately, so it is quite possible that they will get their way.
The bigger question, though, is the importance of this line for the future of Detroit.
In a city that lost 240,000 inhabitants between 2000 and 2010, the necessity of this project must be evaluated. The city is overbuilt — ready for its 1950 population of 1.85 million, not the 700,000 that reside there today. What is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new transit project in a place that has few issues with traffic congestion and where transit ridership has declined from 136,000 daily users in 1996 to 121,000 today, despite the much-heralded completion of the new transit center and the supposed revival of the city’s downtown?
Those who doubt the importance of new infrastructure for Detroit have a point — there might be some value in simply redirecting the funds appropriated for the rail line towards poverty alleviation. Yet there is no clear mechanism by which to do that: Poor residents of Detroit cannot simply be handed checks because they live in the Motor City. That would be unfair to the impoverished people everywhere else. Investing in affordable housing is unnecessary in a city with extremely high vacancy rates and the lowest housing prices in the nation. The U.S.’s lack of state-owned enterprises means direct public job creation is almost impossible. But simply abandoning government efforts to aid the city would be a cruel endnote for a city that has suffered half a century of neglect.
So transportation improvements like the light rail line act as an indirect approach in an attempt to remediate this city’s ills. It will not work alone, but perhaps it is worth the effort, especially if the city builds it in coordination with the densification of areas along the line, a process that is currently being planned.
Moreover, despite Detroit’s long downfall, the signs of its resurgence (or at least plateauing) are perking up. Though the city lost a huge percentage of its population in the last ten years, several areas along the Woodward rail line actually gained population between 2000 and 2010. Those included parts of the downtown and the New Center — the two places to be served by the first phase. And just off Woodward, the two mini cities-within-Detroit of Hamtramck and Highland Park, saw some growth in areas near the avenue.
Nor is city revival impossible. Between 1970 and 1980, we should remember, New York City lost 820,000 inhabitants. Gotham is now bigger than ever. Though a changing global economy and increasing interest in urban living likely played an important role in producing that turn-around, investments in that city’s public transportation system, which began wholeheartedly in the early 1980s, likely produced significant change as well. Who says the same approach cannot work in Detroit?