INTRO: On Tuesday, officials from the Federal Transit Agency, FTA, and the Michigan Department of Transportation held an open house on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. They want public opinion about the latest plan for new mass transit. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus found transit riders tired of failure.
The Federal Transit Agency men from Washington say they’ll come with $25 million next year. They’re not calling it light rail anymore. Instead it’s a street car. It will make twelve stops along the curb of Woodward Avenue. It will run from downtown to Grand Boulevard. That’s 3 miles. But the money is conditional. The FTA wants all the project’s partners to work closely. They want the M1 Rail group to prove how it will gather more money to build the street car line and to operate it.
Carmine Palombo is Director of Transportation planning at SEMCOG. That’s the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
“M1 and that whole organization with Paul at the staff level leading it… what a commitment on the part of the private sector to invest this level of funding and trying to work within the establishment to do it. So I give them a lot of credit.”
He’s talking about Paul Childs who was at the open house but didn’t want to speak on tape. Childs did say that the street car is meant to be an economic development tool. He said he and its billionaire backers want to see more people downtown and more families that live, work and play nearby. “We want it to be like Manhattan,” Childs says. But MDOT, the FTA and Carmine Palombo from SEMCOG still need the Michigan legislature to step in. It needs to pass a law that allows someone to be in charge of mass transit.
“What I need is a regional transit authority because a lot of SEMCOG is doing we’re doing only because we don’t have a regional authority and we’re trying to step in to do that work.”
Governor Snyder pushed hard for an RTA this year and failed. SEMCOG was supposed to have finished the Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter line two years ago. Wayne State University student David Hartman came to the open house on Woodward.
“I like it but it needs to be bigger than just three miles. But I know the funding constraint for that.”
But his expectations are low.
“Just with all the transportation in metro Detroit in general. Because they were going to have that commuter rail from Ann Arbor to Detroit. I was looking forward to taking that to school. But that’s not happening. And I don’t think this will happen either before I graduate.”
“This is a private real estate development project that’s being disguised as transit. It’s transit for some people. It’s not transit for all people.”
Neil Greenberg grew up in West Bloomfield. He spent several years as a transportation planner in San Francisco. He has higher expectations than just the 3 mile curbside streetcar.
“If this gets built OK fine. I’m not opposed to it. But this is just the beginning of our transit conversation. There’s an awful lot of places in the city of Detroit including metro Detroit that we’re not even talking about. Never mind M1 rail. We need to be talking about bus service, not just on Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Ave. But we need to be talking about bus service on Puritan and Livernois and Hoover road and Farmington Road and these other places that nobody is even thinking about. Transit only works if it works for commuters. And there’s very little talk of that here.”
With MDOT, M1 Rail and FTA making decisions behind closed doors, SEMCOG is often left holding the bag… a punching bag even…. That’s what Carmine Palombo admits he’s become for transit advocates.
“This is a very process oriented type of situation. People are tired of process. I understand that. They want something to move forward. I understand that too. We’re just as frustrated. That’s the part that a lot of people don’t understand.”
FTA officials are saying construction on the street car will start next year and be finished in 2016.