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QLINE streetcar next step forward in the reinvention of Detroit

May 13, 2017

Daniel Howes is a columnist with The Detroit News.
Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

Sixty one years after General Motors buses replaced Detroit’s streetcars, they’re back.

The QLine fleet started rolling along Woodward yesterday, tracing a 6.6-mile round trip that is the next step forward in the reinvention of Detroit. As signs go, it’s about as positive as you can get for the downtown a lot of Detroiters — in the city and in the suburbs — long ago gave up for dead.

It’s also a bolts-and-sheet-metal example of powerful business and philanthropic interests playing the kind of long game Michigan’s politicians should learn. The QLine began 10 years ago, by the likes of Roger Penske and Dan Gilbert and Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson, and they stuck with it, through the great recession, through City Hall corruption and through the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

The $180 million QLine is hard proof, if more is needed, that private capital is leading the way in Detroit’s revival. Not government handouts. Not transit authorities.

And that’s fitting for one of America’s great business towns because its people, and its current crop of business leaders, know what it means to climb back from decline.

Instead of depending solely on taxpayers to underwrite the entire effort, business and civic leaders are putting their own dollars into the QLine. Isn’t that the way it ought to be? Yes, because this is a down payment on the future, not the fare for today’s destination.

Too bad that’s something people with no vision struggle to understand.

The QLine’s cars are just starting to roll, but the payoff’s already being realized. A new study financed by Kresge says development along the QLine corridor since 2013 totals $7 billion in projects planned, underway or completed.

Think about that number. In a Detroit just a few short years out of bankruptcy, that’s a lot more than the estimated $800 million in projects normally expected to come from a project like that. In fact, it’s huge, a big, fat marker showing just how far Detroit has come and just how wrong its critics are.

You want to know, dear skeptic, what the payoff is? That’s it – the rehabbed buildings along Woodward and the functioning store fronts. There’s the Ilitch family’s District Detroit development that will transform the patch west of Woodward between Foxtown and Midtown.

These properties generate tax revenue and business activity, energy and forward momentum, optimism and the realization that Detroit’s spiral can go upward, too.

Oh, the 3.3-mile light rail line has its critics, of the project, of its wealthy donors or both. But what doesn’t in this town? Here blame-shifting, self-flagellation and righteous cynicism generally exist in equal measure, no matter what the macro-economic environment. Why should the QLine be any different?

How ’bout giving the venture a chance. How ‘bout letting the real people living and working along downtown’s central spine have their say. It’s them, not the voices lobbing cheap shots from the comfort of their keyboards, who will decide whether the big bet will pay off.

Over time, that is. Not in the first six months.

Daniel Howes is a columnist with The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.