Detroit Abandons Light Rail Dreams, Plans BRT Routes

There was a lot riding on light rail plans for the city of Detroit.

Four years of planning, for one. Almost $100 million in private commitments, for another. But the most important consideration — by far — was the promise of a revitalized Woodward Avenue through the heart of the city’s up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood.

Detroit is trading light rail plans for bus-rapid-transit. Photo: Free Press

Suddenly, yesterday, everything changed. Officials announced that despite all that — plus $25 million promised by USDOT — the city was abandoning light rail plans for a system of bus rapid transit.

According to a report by the Detroit Free Press, USDOT officials met with Mayor Dave Bing recently and outlined concerns that the city, which is in danger of being handed over to an emergency fiscal manager, would have trouble providing the operating funding for the nine-mile line.

This comes amid drastic service cuts at both Detroit’s urban and suburban transit systems — cuts that have led to reports of bus riders stranded at stops waiting three hours for a bus. The Free Press article also noted that among Detroit residents who depend on the bus to get to work, almost 60 percent travel to jobs in the suburbs, a symptom of crippling job sprawl.

News reports yesterday did not have details on BRT plans, except to say that buses would have a dedicated lanes from downtown to and through the suburbs possibly along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan avenues and M-59.

Reactions to the announcement were mixed. Geralyn Lasher, a spokeswoman for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, told the Free Press that light rail was “out of our lane … We’ve always been more in the line of the rapid bus.”

Meanwhile, the project’s private and philanthropic investors, known as the M1 coalition, told US Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, Snyder and Bing that they were disappointed in the decision. Still, the Free Press reported, they were optimistic that a 3.2 mile section of light rail could be built.

There was no such silver lining for Megan Owens, director of Detroit’s Transit Riders United. “We’re basically throwing away a $3 billion economic development investment,” Owens said. “I’m outraged Mayor Bing would let this happen on his watch.”

The primary goal of the Woodward light rail was to spur development in a city that has suffered — probably more than any other city in the country — from white flight and disinvestment. Urban development is an urgent need.

But equity concerns have always been entwined with this project. The question was raised in March with respect to whether the train would be faster center-running service, or curb-running, as investors preferred to maximize development potential.

Ultimately, the city’s financial woes — and transit failures, it appears — were too much to overcome.

The Detroit News announced just today that escrow funds, originally slated for maintenance, would be used to keep Detroit’s People Mover system running despite city budget shortfalls. That’s one less transit cut, due to one more desperate grab for a way to keep things running despite fiscal paralysis.

It’s heartbreaking to see a centerpiece of Detroit’s revitalization plans downgraded. But perhaps all is not lost, even from a development standpoint. Cleveland has had a lot of success attracting development around its $500 million BRT system, connecting downtown to the Cleveland Clinic. If Cleveland can do it, so can Detroit.