Detroit rail line chugs forward

Senate passes key components of plan for project along Woodward
Gary Heinlein and Tanveer Ali / The Detroit News

LANSING -- Key components of a plan to build a light rail line along Woodward Avenue in Detroit were approved without opposition by the state Senate on Thursday, and lawmakers said they plan to complete the multibill package when they resume session next week.

The proposal, pushed by billionaires Dan Gilbert and Roger Penske, would use $103 million in private money to build the street-level rail line looping between Hart Plaza and Grand Boulevard in the New Center area. Its 12 stops would include major businesses, theaters, ballparks, museums and hospitals.

It has the potential to be a model for creating mass transit in Michigan," said Sen. Jud Gilbert, R-Algonac, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Light rail in the heart of Detroit, which eventually could link to hoped-for train systems running north to the suburbs and west past Detroit Metropolitan Airport to Ann Arbor, is endorsed by House and Senate leaders, as well as Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The Senate passed four of eight bills already adopted by the House, and Gilbert said he expects the Senate to pass the rest of them Wednesday.

The one possible obstacle to passage is a controversy that emerged Thursday regarding an upcoming executive order from Granholm that will make cuts in the current state budget because of a predicted $500 million revenue shortfall. Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, sent Granholm a letter on Thursday threatening to suspend any further Senate voting until the order has been issued.

As proposed, the rail line would be run by a nonprofit corporation whose directors would include public officials and private business executives. The state would provide an annual subsidy for operating costs not covered by the fares collected from passengers.

The Detroit Department of Transportation is in talks to meld its proposed $371-million rail line from downtown to the Oakland County border with the train tracks envisioned in the legislation. There also are hopes for an Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter line in October 2010 with $100 million in federal funds.

Bills approved by the Senate on Thursday would:
• Allow the organization of a nonprofit corporation to build and operate the railway system.
• Permit the railway to obtain land, sell bonds and mortgage its property to provide security for the bonds.
• Let the railway store and use electrical power.
• Authorize the Michigan Department of Transportation to establish a transit development finance zone that would be empowered to collect incremental property tax revenue.
• Require the state transportation department to supplement the railway's fare revenues with up to $8 million annually, beginning with the 2010-11 budget year.

Megan Owens, director of Detroit-based Transportation Riders United, a mass transit advocacy group, said the Senate passage of the bills is encouraging for a region where transit solutions have been stalled for decades.

She said obstacles still remain, and she hopes state funding will be available not only for a Woodward line, but existing and future transit infrastructure.

"We're definitely very excited to see this legislation moving forward," Owens said. "This does move Detroit that much closer to having real rapid transit. Obviously the rapid transit ... on Woodward is absolutely critical, not only to get around Detroit but as an economic tool."


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