Categories
Airport Atlanta Dallas Light Rail Metro Rail Miami

Where There Were Once Many Lines Planned, Just One Opens in Miami

» The failure of a local sales tax to produce revenues as expected should dampen excitement around the latest extension of Miami’s Metrorail system.

Last week, Georgia voters overwhelmingly denied the passage of the T-SPLOST referendum, which, among other things, would have provided $7.2 billion for transportation over the next ten years to the Atlanta region thanks to income from a 1¢ sales tax. About half of that funding would have gone to public transit operations and expansion; in the city of Atlanta itself, the program would have paid for the beginning of work on the Beltline transit corridor, a light rail line to Emory University, several BRT lines, and a MARTA heavy rail extension. Voters were clearly unconvinced of the value of the transportation investments, were motivated by anti-tax sentiment, and felt that the projects would not benefit them directly. The result may be decades of increasing traffic in the metropolitan area with few new alternatives.

Yet some voters also expressed another concern: That the proposed projects, despite their inclusion in the official list of priorities, would not actually be built. Their sentiments were not necessarily unreasonable. The $7.2 billion supposed to be generated by the tax was an estimate, and if the economy continues to underperform, it’s quite possible that the actual revenues collected could have been much lower. Moreover, the list of transportation priorities was itself based on project cost estimates, which, if you know anything about U.S. construction projects, are liable to increase wildly.

If anyone was paying attention to Miami, they might be especially skeptical of the tax’s value. There, voters passed a 1/2¢ sales tax increase in 2002 by a huge margin. They were promised an enormous expansion of rail transit service, with dozens of miles of new lines shooting out of the existing Metrorail system in virtually every direction. What they got in reality, however, was one project: The 2.4-mile, one-stop Orange Line extension to the Airport, which opened last weekend at a cost of $506 million. No other rail service is expected to be funded before 2035.

Nonetheless, the Airport extension, which will bring downtown Miami within a 15-minute trip of the airport, is an impressive addition to the city’s transit network. The terminus at the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) is a beautiful feat of steel, concrete, and glass. By next year, the $2 billion MIC will allow for connections between Metrorail, Amtrak, Greyhound, rental cars, seven bus routes, and the region’s commuter Tri-Rail line. An automated people mover called MIA Mover already connects the complex to the terminals.

Miami’s Metrorail system, showing 2.4-mile extension to the airport and new Orange Line. Ridership in the southern part of the system is higher, so doubling service to the south is a reasonable decision. Source: Miami-Dade County. Read a critique of the new map from Cameron Booth.

The MIC station is expected to see 7,500 daily riders on Metrorail, a huge increase over the 66,000 daily riders currently recorded on the system’s 24.4 miles, according to APTA (up from about 45,000 a day in the late 1990s). Ridership on the system has been increasing relatively steadily since it opened in 1984, unsurprisingly considering the city’s growth during that period. Since 2000 population increase has been particularly quick, with the city now housing more than 408,000 people, a more than 10% increase over the past decade. Miami’s population density of more than 12,000 people per mile is now about the same as Chicago’s.

Thus the argument back in 2002 that something needed to be done to significantly improve the rail system. The People’s Transportation Plan, as it was known, was supposed to have raised $17 billion over 25 years, enough to guarantee the completion of a 10.6 east-west Metrorail corridor and 9.5-mile north corridor by 2016.

Several problems arose. The North Corridor, originally supposed to be the first project completed, repeatedly received poor ratings from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) thanks to low ridership estimates and poor management on the part of Miami-Dade transit. The FTA would have to contribute a significant portion of the project’s cost for it to be funded. At the same time, its projected price tag increased from $515 million to $1.63 billion. Similar problems plagued the East-West Corridor, of which the Airport Link was supposed to be the first phase. Indeed, the cost of this project doubled since initial estimates.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of the recession (which hurt Florida particularly badly) led to a decline in tax revenues. And the system, whose finances had been incorrectly tabulated in previous years, spent far more than expected on operating deficits and a new headquarters, leaving only the $400 million in local funding for the airport line.

By 2010, a partial expansion of bus service was basically entirely reversed, the other rail projects simply do not exist according to the Miami-Dade website, and the only improvements to the North Corridor have been in the form of an improved bus line.

Just as problematic, even when hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in new transit capital, the system has had trouble providing the services that an effective public transportation network is supposed to offer. While Metrorail service has been increased slightly to provide for a distribution of 10-minute peak services on the two branches (the Orange Line to the airport and the Green Line to Palmetto, the other, older terminus), at nights and weekends, trains will leave the airport only every 30 minutes. Nobody should be expected to wait half an hour for a train at the airport when arriving on Saturday at midday. And fewer people will ride as a result. How could the funding for this essential purpose not be available?

It will be convenient for a large number of people to get easier access between Miami’s airport and its downtown without having to deal with traffic, and indeed, the city is one of many American cities prioritising airport rail links. Dallas has its own Orange Line light rail project currently under construction and planned to open in 2014* (Chicago coincidently also has an Orange Line to its Midway Airport). But how much value do these airport connections bring, anyhow?

As I have previously written, airport transit connections are promoted (and prioritised) by urban elites because they are frequent air travellers — and trips to the airport are often the only travel for which they can conceive personally using the transit system. But other investments, such as in the densest areas of the city, usually provide more benefit to the average inhabitant of a metropolitan region. Given Miami’s downtown-oriented growth, there is reason to suspect that new lines operating in the center city, rather than toward the periphery (as the north and east-west corridors would have) would have been more attractive to riders. In this vein, Branden Helms argues that airport stations rarely attract the patronage expected for them. Is Miami’s prediction of a 12% increase in its rail system ridership reasonable?

Does this mean Miami’s new Metrorail extension is a waste of funds? Not necessarily — especially considering Miami’s distinctive position as the “capital of the Caribbean” — attracting millions of visitors and business people each year through the airport. If the city’s growth continues to be based on its status in Latin America, the airport connection may be invaluable.

Miami, however, is a parable: Voters will not always receive that which they believe to have endorsed.

* The first segment of Dallas’ Orange Line opened last week as well, with new service provided between the existing Bachman Station and Irving Convention Center. Additional stops further north at North Lake College and Belt Line are expected to open in early December.

Image at top: New MIA Metrorail Station, from Miami-Dade County

Categories
Fort Lauderdale France Light Rail Metz Streetcar

Commitment to Tramways Makes France a World Model for New Urban Rail

» Over the past twelve years, the total route mileage of tramways systems in France has multiplied by five — at a cost reasonable even for small cities.

Last weekend, the city of Brest, on the far western coast of France, opened its new tramway, a 14.3-km (8.9-mile) line that connects the center city to the west and northeast. 50,000 daily riders are expected in a city of about 140,000 inhabitants. This Friday, Orléans, an even smaller city in central France, will open its second, 11.3-km tramway line. The first already attracts about 40,000 daily users.

These two cities are far from alone in France. Across the country, cities large and small have adopted the construction of modern tramways* to bring their citizens a modern form of public transportation that has led to improved circulation, more convenient networks, and renovated downtowns. Like American streetcars, these tramways operate at the ground level, usually without grade separation from automobile traffic, making them relatively cheap to build; on the other hand, like American light rail, tramways operate within their own rights-of-way and they feature long trainsets that can carry the equivalent of four busloads or more — in other words, they actually improve transit capacity and performance.

The appeal of tramways is easy to understand. The electric vehicles are silent, modern-looking, and entirely flat-floor. Their tracks can be nestled in a lawn, creating a grass median through which trains run; if done right, they can be used as a tool to restore the beauty of an urban boulevard, rather than deface it, as do some light rail lines traveling on grade-separated track. In some cities, like Nice, Bordeaux, and Orléans, vehicles have been designed with batteries that allow them to travel some distance (such as across a historic square) without the need for overhead catenary wire. In virtually every case, tramways in France have been specifically located on major bus corridors, in order to replace overcrowded routes with higher capacity services.

France is not alone in using trams, of course; Germany, notably, has dozens of such systems across the country, as do Switzerland, the Netherlands, and others. But as of late, France’s cities have made an unparalleled investment in the mode. While France had virtually no historic tramways left by the 1980s outside of short routes in Marseille, Lille, and St. Etienne, by the end of this year, 25 cities will have such networks and 29 will by 2016, as the map above shows. And most of this construction has occurred since 2000, with an increase from 124.7 km nationwide to 624.1 km (388 miles) by the end of this year, a 400% increase. In 2010, 2011, and 2012 alone, 160.2 km will have been built.

As shown in the chart below, seven cities account for about half of all tramway route kilometers in the country. Lyon and Montpellier have expanded most quickly, each adding more than 56 km since 2000, with Bordeaux and the Paris region adding 40 km each in the same period. Paris and its suburbs will add another 54.3 km to the network by 2014.

In France as a whole, these tramways currently carry about 2.8 million riders a day, compared to about 1.6 million daily riders on all U.S. light rail and streetcar systems. These riders appear to be attracted to trams above and beyond what had previously been offered through bus service. In Lyon, four tram lines opened since 2000 have brought in a considerable numbers of users; the rail system attracted 58 million riders in 2010. But the city’s transit network as a whole grew by 86 million riders between 2000 and 2010 (an increase of 30%), meaning that the new trams were not simply moving people from buses into trains. In other words, the investment in rail appears to be paying off in terms of moving people into public transportation who used to be using some other mode of travel. That, again, is not a surprise: It is not only enjoyable to travel by tramway, but such service is also usually faster and more comfortable than equivalent bus service.

The focus in France has been on urban tramway networks, especially compared to the previously fashionable automated metro networks. Though those systems — built using VAL technology in Toulouse, Lille, and Rennes — were seen as the future of French rail systems in the 1980s, their high construction costs caused by the complete grade separations they require makes them less them adaptable to the needs of less populous urban areas that may be able to instead afford a tramway line. Indeed, this is the point: Through the widespread use of tramways, France is providing new urban rail systems to dozens of cities that in another context would not be able to afford the costs of trains. In the process, cities across the country are experiencing significantly improved transit that is attracting more and more riders.

Trams are not always cheap; the Brest line, for instance, cost about €40 million per mile to build, or $50 million per mile. Some cities, like Besançon in eastern France, have been able to limit costs to about $35 million per mile. Even that may be more than one might hope for steel implanted in concrete.

But in the American context, those costs come across as reasonable. The U.S. Department of Transportation revealed its latest TIGER discretionary grants last week. The one streetcar project that got the nod was the Wave in Fort Lauderdale, which will cost $83.2 million (of which the federal government will pay $18 million) for 1.4 miles of track — that’s $59 million per mile. In exchange, the Florida city will get a rail line that attracts an estimated 2,800 riders a day thanks mostly to the short, tourist-oriented route where virtually no bus ridership currently exists. The streetcar will have to share its right-of-way with cars and the vehicles themselves will be around 66 feet long, just a bit longer than an articulated bus. Stations are likely to be slightly improved bus shelters.

The other streetcar systems currently being built in the U.S. have all the same limitations — and many of them are very expensive, too: Cincinnati’s line will cost $50 million per mile to build, Seattle’s $53 million per mile, and Atlanta’s $72 million per mile. At these costs, American cities should be pushing for their streetcars to work a bit more like French tramways.

… Or even French buses. In Metz, in eastern France, the city is investing in a very innovative bus system called Mettis that is currently under construction and expected to open in September next year at a cost of €170 million for 17.8 kilometers of service — or about $19 million per mile. That would be expensive for a bus line if the system was bus rapid transit in the non-rapid form BRT too often takes. But Mettis will be a new breed, so much like a tramway that it will be hard to differentiate its vehicles and alignment from that of a rail service.

Metz Mettis Busway Rendering

Bus or tramway?

Mettis’ two lines will use 79-foot hybrid buses (that, I remind you, is quite a bit longer than an American streetcar) specially constructed by Van Hool. They will feature four large doors and provide complete low-floor service to the platforms being planned for the large stations, as rendered above. The system is being built to accomodate future electrification through energy transfer at stops, though that technology is not yet fully developed.

86% of the Mettis corridor will operate within its own right-of-way and vehicles will get transit signal priority. Certain journeys are expected to see reduced travel times of about 40%. No wonder 36,000 riders are eventually expected to use the service daily.

We could take these examples of successful French investments in modern transit systems to lament the high costs and limited utility of too many American rail and even BRT projects (if we need another reminder, Maryland has been discussing spending upwards of $60 million a mile on a BRT line). But there are more positive lessons to learn. If we are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on a new rail line, is it too much to ask that it be placed in its own right-of-way and be given high quality amenities? Is it reasonable to suggest that an investment in a 1.5-mile line is simply not long enough in itself to actually attract a significant number of commuters? Are there ways to make bus services as appealing as rail lines, at a lower price?

* Note that in this post, I have defined trams on tire as tramways. (These are located in Caen, Clermont, Nancy, and, by the end of this year, outside of Paris). This does not include significantly improved bus systems, such as Metz’s, but does include systems with electric catenary and a fixed guideway.

Categories
Light Rail Toronto

Toronto’s Transit City Back in Play

» Toronto’s regional transportation authority agrees to move forward with a plan for four new light rail routes. Despite opposition from the mayor.

Canada’s largest city may be experiencing the most intense public transportation-related psychodrama in North America. Five years after Mayor David Miller unveiled his Transit City proposal for a citywide network of light rail lines, two years after Ontario government agreed to fund half of them, and one year after a new mayor announced that “Transit City is Dead,” the project finally appears to be moving forward. A unanimous vote by Toronto regional transportation officials today clears the way for C$8.4 billion in new transit investments between now and 2020.

In the process, conservative Mayor Rob Ford, whose antipathy towards alternative transportation modes verged on the truly anti-urban, has lost his influence. It’s an exciting step for a city that has wavered wildly on transportation issues over the past decade, but which is in true need of better public transit.

Before describing the process by which the city endorsed, then rejected, then came back to approving the Transit City plan, the full extent of the 75-kilometer system proposed for the city should be described. At the heart of the network is the Eglinton Crosstown project, which will run east-west 25 kilometers through the center of the city, offering an alternative to the over-capacity Bloor-Danforth Subway; about half of the alignment will be underground, with the other half above surface. Two other routes — along Finch and Sheppard Avenues — will bring surface light rail lines to suburban arterials. And the Scarborough RT, an automated transit service not unlike the Vancouver SkyTrain (though not automated), will be replaced and extended by a new elevated light rail line. Together, the projects will provide relief for a series of neighborhoods with lower densities than the center of the city.

Construction on the Eglinton project is already underway; the other lines will begin in 2014 and 2015, in time for a systemwide completion by 2020.

What Transit City is not is a project designed to serve the needs of downtown commuters, who will remain served primarily by the same two subway lines first constructed opened in the 1950s and 60s and an aging network of streetcars. Nor will it connect to the airport or along a number of north-south routes proposed in the initial Transit City plan (on the Don Mills, Jane, and Malvern corridors).

Yet the investment plan remains a very significant improvement for Toronto, which now can boast of the continent’s second-largest funded rail transit expansion plan by route miles (after Los Angeles).

In 2007, Mayor Miller took a wild step in announcing that he wanted to bring to fruition a network of eight new light rail corridors along 120 kilometers to serve parts of the city that did not — and like would not, due to density — get new subway service. The Transit City apellation was apt, since what the mayor was proposing was a reorientation of virtually all of the city’s neighborhoods towards new high-capacity rail corridors. It was a dramatic bet, since Mr. Miller did not have the funds to build any of it. By early 2009, though, he had convinced Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to devote C$3 billion to the program, and by summer, all four of the lines that are in the current plans were funded. It was an arrangement only made possible because of considerable political entrepreneurship. Mr. Miller made transit expansion a serious matter by getting a big vision into the minds of the city’s population, and Mr. McGuinty, with the funds, was convinced to pay up. It’s a model other cities could learn from.

By early 2010, after Mr. Miller decided not to run for election, contenders for the mayor’s office began suggesting their opposition to Transit City, noting the fact that light rail would require surface construction* and the removal of car lanes (despite the ample space available on Toronto’s wide arterials). Rocco Rossi, once seen as a front-runner for the position, said he would put a moratorium on light rail project development were he to win. Rob Ford ran an aggressive campaign premised on attracting the support of city residents far from downtown (“suburbanites” in Toronto parlance) in which he proposed eliminating the city’s streetcars, relegating bikes to nature paths, and replacing the light rail plans with subways, which he claimed were more in sync with the city’s mentality. In other words, they were more in sync with the city’s drivers.

As we know, Mr. Ford won. He used his election as evidence that the city’s residents abhorred the idea of building more light rail and announced that he had canceled Transit City immediately. In March of last year, he signed an agreement with the Ontario government that eliminated the Finch light rail line (in favor of the mythical “better bus”), pushed the Eglinton Line fully underground, and promised to build an extension of the Sheppard Subway, rather than a surface light rail line as had been previously proposed. The problems were two-fold: The new transit lines would serve far fewer people than Mr. Miller’s proposal, at a higher cost; and there was no funding for the new Sheppard Subway because of the massive cost increase Mr. Ford subjected to the Eglinton Line because of his insistance that it be placed underground.

By summer 2011, it was clear that the “private partners” Mr. Ford wanted to pay for Sheppard Line were imaginary. The city was thus left with only the Eglinton Line and Scarborough Lines, 43 kilometers of new routes when it had once had 75 kilometers on the books. It was a waste of money and a disappointment for commuters.

These facts were impossible to ignore, and the city council rebelled. In January, Counselor Karen Stintz took charge, essentially dismissing Mr. Ford’s argument in favor of subways. In February and March, the council determined that Mr. Ford had acted without the council’s advice in dismissing Transit City and they returned their support to the previous plan, despite the Mayor’s vocal outrage. Metrolinx, the regional transportation body, released its study of the issue, agreeing with the council, and the body’s governing board action earlier today means that Transit City’s 75 kilometers, most of which will be surface-running light rail, will be built. The Sheppard Avenue line will open in 2018, four years after it was supposed to.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this sage is not over, thanks to the obstreperous Mr. Ford, who is so devoted to the subway concept and the need to keep trains out of the street that he plans to make subways an election issue once again in the 2014 election, even though construction will have begun on several lines by that point. For the sake of Toronto’s near-term future, one hopes he doesn’t get the opportunity.

Oddly enough, the success of proponents of the light rail scheme in pulling together support for their project has encouraged others to note that the project’s shortcomings — notably its failure to mitigate the congestion on transit lines downtown — will remain struggles for this region after 2020. The redevelopment of Union Station and the improvement of GO commuter rail service, in addition to the demand from the new light rail lines, will overload the subway system. Thus the long sought-after Downtown Relief Line, which would double the Bloor-Danforth line downtown, has been brought up again by official and non-official sources. The paradox of investing in investing in new transit capacity is that more capacity brings more ridership. Yet that is a problem for another generation of leaders to solve.

Examining Toronto’s history, it is difficult to ignore referencing parallels to New Jersey, or Wisconsin, or Florida, where the entry of new conservative governors hostile to the idea of spending public funds on major new rail programs resulted in the cancellation of projects that would have cost those states very little in terms of actual expenditures had they been built. One hopes that, as in Toronto, the need to make rational investments in transportation will become clearer over time.

* This was a significant concern for residents of the city at the time due to the construction mess between 2006 and 2010 caused by the reconstruction of the St. Clair Streetcar to provide it dedicated lanes in its right of way.

Categories
Light Rail Metro Rail Toronto

In Toronto, the Fight for Transit City Continues

» Facing increasing criticism from a city council, Mayor Rob Ford’s plans for new subways may not come to fruition after all.

Transportation is an intensely political game in Toronto. Canada’s largest city, home to millions of daily transit users, has been fighting for half a decade on how to expand its rail network over issues that might be familiar to inhabitants of many metropolises. Should trains be put in a subway or remain on the surface? Should extensions be developed downtown or in the suburbs? Should funding come from the public or private pocketbook?

The election of Rob Ford to the mayoralty in fall 2010 seemed to answer some of those questions: All new urban rail projects would be built underground in order to avoid disrupting traffic. Most new lines would be designed to extend into suburban business districts, rather than reinforce the network in the center city. And an emphasis would be placed on finding private financing to cover costs. Almost as soon as he entered office, Mr. Ford managed to dismantle the light rail surface-running, publicly funded Transit City plans his predecessor David Miller had imagined and, in one case, actually brought to the construction stage.

In the process, no one seemed to notice that the mayor, who never sought full approval from the council in renegotiating the funding contract with Ontario Province, didn’t have the legal authority to trash the plans.

For Toronto, this once again puts the city’s public transportation future up in the air. Mr. Miller’s project would have funded three new light rail lines and a refurbishment and extension to another by 2020; only a 6-mile segment of the Eglinton Crosstown corridor would have been underground, compared to 29 miles overground on the rest of the plan, all at an Ontario-funded cost of C$8.2 billion. Mr. Ford squashed plans for the Finch Avenue and Sheppard Avenue light rail lines and killed the planned extension of the Scarborough RT; in their place would be a 12-mile fully-underground Eglinton line and a refurbishment of the Scarborough line — a total of about 15 miles of fixed-guideway transit at the same cost, serving far fewer Torontonians in the process. A subway extension along the Sheppard corridor would be paid for by the private sector. In theory.

The new mayor claimed he had a public mandate to build only subways; people hated Mr. Miller’s cheaper light rail lines, he said.

These changes brought on by Mayor Ford’s honeymoon in office, however, have come to an end. Left wing and centrists members of the city council banded together to push back on the administration’s efforts to reduce public services a few months back — and now a majority may be in favor of going back to Mr. Miller’s Transit City plans, especially since many on Finch Avenue northwest of the city center feel completely excluded from current plans. Mr. Ford’s own counselors suggested that private businesses would only be able to contribute 10 to 30% of the Sheppard subway’s costs. Karen Stintz, who chairs the board of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), recommended last week moving parts of the Eglinton corridor back above ground to save up to C$2 billion, limiting the extension of the Sheppard subway to one stop (instead of five) at a cost of C$1 billion, and adding a busway to Finch Avenue for C$400 million.

Mr. Ford’s response so far: “I did what the taxpayers want. They want subways. That’s it. They don’t want streetcars.” At a meeting today, Ford sympathizers on the TTC board voted against continuing to work with provincial planners — despite Ms. Stintz’s recommendations, putting her future in jeopardy, according to one observer. The mayor, who continues to label the Transit City light rail services designed to run in independent guideways “streetcars,” does not take criticism well.

But the mayor may be an increasingly irrelevant player here, since a majority on the council may be able to overrule him. In the process, Toronto may backtrack on its transit policies, taking the city two years back in time.

As for the public reaction, people do not seem to be screaming in the streets about the potential loss of their much-promised subways in favor of twice as many route miles of above-ground light rail. In the name of fiscal efficiency, one does wonder how it ever made sense to anyone to prioritize building subways through areas of only moderately dense development. Mayor Ford’s unwillingness to change rather comes across as the same old fight to “end the war on cars” he promised during the 2010 elections, a stand against getting in the way of a few drivers for the sake of speeding the commutes of many transit riders. In the meantime, the inhabitants of Toronto have seen few improvements to their daily commutes and delays in acting on future proposed services.

Nonetheless, the intense disagreement between Mr. Ford and his council counterparts — one that seems unlikely to die down at least for the next few months — suggests that public involvement is necessary. It might be reasonable to suggest a direct vote on the options available: With C$8.2 billion, what would you do? Think big: You never know what might come next.

Image above: Toronto transit street art, from Flickr user jmv (cc)

Categories
Bus Detroit Finance Light Rail

Back to Basics for Detroit Light Rail

» A private push to build a short line down Woodward may find itself in official plans once again.

Just three weeks after Detroit leaders announced that they had abandoned efforts to build a 9.3-mile light rail line down Woodward Avenue, the city’s central strip, Mayor Dave Bing revealed on Friday that he would allow a shorter link funded by a private group to move forward if it submitted an acceptable business plan within 90 days.

The project will have to be built right: Even at just 3.4 miles, the line could serve as a quick, reliable connector between the waterfront and the New Center, via Midtown, but that will only be possible if trains run in their own lanes, if they run frequently, and if they are funded with no negative effect on the city’s already under-financed bus system. There is evidence that those conditions will not be met. Yet the project’s design has yet to be completed — Detroit transportation advocates could successfully fight for the appropriate implementation of this first stage of Woodward Light Rail.

But the circumstances in which the project’s reactivation has occurred speak to a continued dysfunction not only in the City of Detroit but in American transportation politics in general.

The rail project was put on hold last month because of the sense that the City of Detroit — already mired in debt — would be unable to afford the operations costs of the corridor (estimated at $10 million a year) without sacrificing bus service. Repeated plans for a regional transportation authority, and associated funding, have been in the air for decades. Only a plan that served the suburbs well would be acceptable, since they would have to agree to increasing financing for transit, and so Governor Rick Snyder, Mayor Bing, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood agreed to refocus efforts and money on city-suburban improvements to the bus network.

The latest move is backtracking at its best. Seemingly overwhelmed by calls from influential congressmen and the executives of downtown businesses like Quicken, Penske, and Compuware, who have already lined up $80 million for a $125 million short version of the line (which they call M1-Rail and which was actually proposed in advance of the longer corridor), the deal from last month will be amended. That is, if business leaders are able to find an effective way to cover the remainder of the capital costs and provide for the continued operations of the line, which they have said they could pay for through a tax-increment financing (TIF) district. They also want to take back the $25 million TIGER grant promised by LaHood in early 2010, then pulled back in December.

Why the sudden change in prospects for the line? Why weren’t these investors — willing to put up a surprising amount of money — consulted before their project was abandoned? What assurances do we have from the mayor and governor that suburban interests won’t be yet again frustrated by the fact that Detroit gets rail and they get rapid buses — and veto a regional transit authority? Where is the communication and where is the consistency in policymaking?

Just as we have seen with the Obama Administration’s high speed rail program, or New Jersey’s ARC rail tunnel, or a variety of maglev projects, this country specializes in spending years studying projects, then partially funding them, then effectively abandoning them. This results in years of delays and extra spending. I have been clear in the past that the Woodward rail line is a questionable priority for the region, but the move back and forth on decisions helps no one. Downtown Detroit’s leaders have been waiting patiently for the rail line, planning ahead around its development; were they forced to reconsider their options last month? Now what do they do?

There is nothing clear, after all, about the future of this project.

Nonetheless, the line does show some promise, because if Detroit is going to grow at all (it lost more than 230,000 people between 2000 and 2010), it will be in the small area bordered by the Chrysler and Lodge Freeways on the east and west, by Grand Boulevard and the waterfront on the north and south — and that’s exactly the neighborhood the short light rail line is supposed to serve. In that area, within 1/2 a mile of the Woodward corridor, are already 123,000 jobs (map of employment density in corridor) and about 20,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census. Most of the city’s major cultural institutions, including Wayne State University, the sports stadiums, and several casinos, are within walking distance. Connections will be possible not only with the existing bus lines and Amtrak but also with the new BRT services proposed by Governor Rick Snyder last month, meant to link Detroit with the suburbs and the airport, via Michigan, Woodward, and Gratiot Avenues.

As I referenced at the start of the article, however, a light rail line within this area could be an appropriate addition to the transportation landscape of the city — or it could be the second coming of the much-maligned People Mover, which makes a quarter-mile-radius circle in one direction downtown. That system attracts few riders. But the Woodward corridor, serving real trip needs, could work — under certain conditions.

Light rail vehicles must be designed to run in their own lanes and be able to take advantage of traffic signal prioritization to ensure that they make the journey between destinations quickly. But the M1 group has been adamant that trains run next to the sidewalk in shared lanes to “boost tourism and redevelopment.” I was not informed that tourists and developers were particularly enamored of slow trains that have the propensity of being stuck in traffic.

Meanwhile, such a short corridor must feature trains running very frequently. While many of the riders will be residents commuting to and from work, a significant share is likely to be made up of people transferring from other transit modes and of people who drove into work and need a downtown circulator. For the latter groups, waiting more than five minutes for a train in the middle of the day would represent a significant impediment to using the system, as they have other options, such as walking or buses. But the tenuous nature of financing for transit in metropolitan Detroit suggests that it will not be easy to fund such services, even if a TIF district is established. Once it becomes clear that the light rail line hasn’t solved the city’s woes, can we be sure that the business lobby won’t switch its interests to funding parks or other amenities?

For the sake of the city’s bus system and its future BRT network, operations funding for the light rail project cannot be derived from expenditures meant to be devoted elsewhere, such as from the proposed regional transit authority, as Mayor Bing and Governor Snyder have already made clear. Making it over this hurdle will be difficult.

Within ninety days, the city should make a very clear, final decision about its interests in the future of the Woodward Corridor, giving the M1 group a definitive answer about the future of the light rail line. The rail project should be built only if it can be funded without affecting bus financing and provide excellent transit service downtown. No more dilly-dallying.

Image above: Detroit’s Campus Martius, adjacent to Woodward Avenue where rail line will run, from Flickr user jodelli (cc)