The South End
The Woodward Avenue Light Rail Transit Project, a public transit train that will travel from Hart Plaza to Grand Boulevard – and eventually extending to Eight Mile Road – will bring Detroit a chance to transform from a weary, old-fashioned city into a lively, innovative metropolis – or at least that’s the hope of several of its supporters.
A Transportation Riders United informational meeting, held on the evening of Nov. 19 at the Park Shelton apartment building (15 E. Kirby St.), brought a small but passionate group of citizens from surrounding Detroit neighborhoods to learn about the project and voice their concerns.
Ralph Rinaldi, one of the organizers of the meeting from St. Patrick Catholic Church in Detroit, said his parish and another church, St. Aloysius, were sponsoring the meeting because the light rail train would “greatly influence people coming from the community, as well as other interests within the immediate neighborhood.”
That includes places such as Wayne State’s main and medical campuses, Orchestra Hall and other attractions.
Guarded optimism was the tone of community members during the meeting. While TRU Executive Director Megan Owens was enthusiastic during her informational presentation, listeners asked plenty of questions to make sure this won’t be another disappointment like the People Mover.
One of the major benefits of having a transit system like this, said Owens, is that it’s much more economically efficient on a personal level. She estimated the costs of maintaining and driving a car for a year to be $8,000, while a transit pass for the Woodward Light Rail would cost around $800.
Robin Boyle, WSU professor of urban planning and chair of the department of urban studies and planning, said there are at least three macro benefits to having a light rail system: connecting places of employment, providing cultural change, and inducing development. Along Woodward avenue, there are major points of employment like Wayne State, Henry Ford Hospital and Detroit Medical Center.
“(They have) significant pulling power in terms of employers, visitors, patients, students,” Boyle said. “Whichever way you cut it, there are a lot of people here.
“(There is a) simple goal: Connect these different parts, so that students that are at Wayne State, but have an internship at DMC, can get down there without having to resort to finding a car, getting in it, exiting one parking structure and going to another one.”
He said that it will also encourage those working or visiting elsewhere in Detroit to visit downtown attractions.
Boyle envisioned a city where drivers exit one place, park their cars and ride the light rail downtown. He said the sight of rails and hubs would persuade citizens to wait for a train they know will come rather than waiting for a bus that might not.
Boyle said it is a cultural change for the people in Southeast Michigan that have been dependent on owning an automobile for generations.
“Here’s an opportunity for them to use the modal split,” He said.
Another benefit is a possible economic ripple effect toward properties in close proximity to light rail hubs.
“The examples that have been cited are places such as Washington, D.C. where within a short walking distance of each of the subway hubs, they have seen significant property development and increasing land values and, in turn, increasing property values as these areas build out,” Boyle said.
But, he added, the verdict is still out on whether the ripple effect was caused solely by the transit hubs.
During the meeting, both Owens and Tim Roseboom – manager of Detroit’s Department of Transportation – acknowledged that businesses and residence flocking to be near a hub could lead to abandonment of other parts of the city. But they said this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Owens pointed to how abandoned land in Detroit is being turned into urban farmland and how the city is struggling to provide basic services, like garbage pickup to outer parts of the city where few live. She deemed it “economically smart” to be condensed. Roseboom said that concentrating on central city corridors like Woodward creates success and ultimately affects the way neighborhoods are planned. Such thinking complements city Mayor Dave Bing’s plan to “right-size” Detroit.
One concern voiced by Detroit native Valerie Glenn was how urban residents without cars would be able to access the train. Suburban people would drive their cars to a station to board a train, but those who live too far from the stations to walk wouldn’t be able to access them.
“I really want to see the first phase (of constructing the light rail system) benefit downtown,” Glenn said. “I’d like to make sure that the people in the city use it.”
In response, Owens said that, while this project won’t solve all of Detroit’s problems, a light rail train could free more buses to cover other city routes. The end result TRU hopes for is a network of reliable, faster buses to complement the train.
“Trains may be the backbone of the system,” she said, “but buses are the lifeblood connecting neighborhoods. We will fight to ensure that not a penny is taken away from the buses to make (the Woodward light rail train) happen.”
Boyle said: “Obviously, improving transportation along the Woodward spike is valuable in terms of beginning to network – in terms of putting all the parts together. The reason I say that is there’s a lot of buses that go east west and connect at Woodward or potentially connect at Woodward. So that gives them an opportunity to bring the bus along at possibly Warren or Mack.
“(People) exit there and get on the light rail system (to) take them downtown far more quickly than they can at present.”
Glenn, who regularly uses public transit, was positive about the light rail system.
“It has the possibility of expanding Detroit,” she said. “I want to see people and businesses come back, to see the hustle and bustle. This could be the beginning of something positive. I think it’s gonna work.”
The first 3.5 miles of the light rail system, from Hart Plaza to Grand Boulevard, was estimated by TRU to cost $120 million. Funding is coming from donations from local business and institutions, such as The Kresge Foundation, Penske Corporation, Compuware Corporation, Illitch Holdings, Inc., Quicken Loans and Wayne State.
“We have pledged to give some money … but nothing has been transferred yet,” Robert Kohrman, associate vice president of the Office of Budget, Planning and Analysis, said.
These institutions will not receive any direct profits from the light rail’s operations, but will indirectly benefit from the trains bringing more people into the downtown area. In addition the U.S. Department of Transportation has committed $25 million in federal funding toward the project, according to the TRU website.
Roseboom said that the goal is to start construction on Woodward to prepare a rail bed for the trains as early as next fall. He estimated the 3.5 mile stretch between Hart Plaza and Grand Boulevard would take about two years to complete.
For now, according to Boyle, the federal government is conducting an environmental impact analysis on what will be the environmental impact of the light rail. Because the current plan is to extend the light rail to Eight Mile Road, he said it will take researchers longer than originally planned to undertake.
“This is a bigger piece of environmental analysis then what was originally conceived, which was originally to (Grand) boulevard,” Boyle said.
Owens said that one of the main challenges facing the project is politics. Convincing city and suburban politicians to work together and invest in the project is crucial for the light rail’s success, she said.
“The public would be willing,” Owens said. “But the challenge is convincing the politicians.”