Commentary: Blow to Mass Transit

Jun 7, 2012

Back in the days when the Big Three really were the BIG Three, Detroit may have been the most hostile place in the nation to mass transit. The city existed to create private transportation for all. You were expected to have your own wheels. Well, the world has changed, and estimates indicate that more than a third of Detroiters have no cars these days, and many more would like to take mass transit when they can -- especially downtown.

Sixty years ago, the city had an efficient system of streetcars. Now, a group of powerful business leaders want to build a streetcar system again, one that would run, at least for starters, on Woodward Avenue, from the heart of downtown out 3.3 miles to what’s called the city’s New Center Area, where Wayne State University and the Fisher Building are located.

Those behind the project call it M-1Rail. Now, there have been many mass transit plans for Detroit over the past 40 years, most of them far more grandiose. But this is different because most of the funding -- a relatively modest $137 million -- would be from the private sector, and is in place.

But M1 Rail does need some federal help, namely, about $40 million in grants and tax credits. This week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to town, and some expected him to come with a satchel of money. M-1 Rail hoped he’d announce that the feds were in and the funding was in place. But they were disappointed. Instead, after praising the commitment to the project by Detroit’s business leaders, LaHood said the federal government still has concerns about M1’s long-term viability, and how it is going to be managed.

Afterwards, some of the business leaders involved, including auto legend Roger Penske and Dan Gilbert of  Quicken Loans were reportedly frustrated. But, frankly, though I think the streetcar line is a wonderful idea, I can’t blame the feds for delaying. I think NOT delaying might have been irresponsible.

For one thing, Congressman Hansen Clarke, who was at the meeting, said Washington fears that the project’s revenue projections are too high and their cost estimates are too low. And face it -- no matter who is behind the authority running the streetcar system, there have to be worries that it is in Detroit, a city on the edge of financial collapse.

Still, the odds seem fairly good that the M1 group will be able to win federal approval, and build a downtown streetcar system in the next four years. However, if that does work out, what happens next?

Former State Representative Marie Donigan chaired a subcommittee on mass transit. She is pessimistic that the streetcar system will ever evolve into a broader mass transit system, and notes that the proposal for a rapid bus system has bogged down in the legislature. She thinks the governor should create a new non-profit regional transit organization, and hire someone powerful enough to pull it all together and figure out a regional plan.

Whether that happens remains to be seen, But it is worth noting that creating such an organization is exactly what Governor Snyder is expected to do to build the new Detroit River bridge.

Stay tuned.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.