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A New Avenue of Prosperity

Rapid transit for Woodward Avenue

July 18, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


A century ago, Detroit had a world-class transit system. Civic, business, and community leaders want to restore rapid transit to Woodward Avenue and restore Southeast Michigan to prosperity.

DETROIT—Support for a rapid transit line along Woodward Avenue, the cradle of Detroit's auto industry, is gaining momentum.

The new route, which would run from Detroit to Pontiac, has gained the support of urban and suburban leaders who understand that mobility, efficiency, and quality of life are the key to 21st century prosperity.

These leaders have observed bold transit initiatives that have brought new life and prosperity to dozens of American cities over the past few years, and they want Southeast Michigan to enjoy the same success. Already, business and civic leaders have rallied behind a proposed rapid transit route between Detroit, Ann Arbor, and the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Rapid transit on Woodward Avenue, supporters say, would open up another avenue of prosperity and productivity.

Members of the Woodward Avenue Association, a nonprofit alliance of 11 local governments and two counties, assert that restoring rapid transit to Woodward Avenue would spur the growth of jobs, housing, and cultural amenities. The new route would connect Detroit’s historic strength as a center of transportation innovation with its future as a 21st century metropolis, says Heather Carmona, the association’s executive director. There's a lot to build on.

Building on History
A century ago, the Detroit region had the finest regional transit system in the world. Passengers would pay 3 cents to ride streetcars and the “interurban,” which stretched from Port Huron to Toledo, Ann Arbor to Imlay City, Detroit to Flint, and hundreds of rail-centered communities in between. Rail made it possible for Henry Ford and his workers to build the Model T in two plants along the Woodward corridor. The very last rail line closed on Woodward 50 years ago, which is just about when Detroit’s population peaked, and the city, and then its suburban region, began to slip.

Still, Ms. Carmona points out, a great deal of the avenue’s architectural and industrial history is intact. Ford’s Piquette Plant, where the Model T was first built, is just a few miles down the road from the Highland Park factory that showcased the assembly line’s efficiency. At one time, around 1917, 23 automobile companies in Detroit, many of them located along Woodward Avenue, assembled more than 1 million vehicles a year.

General Motors moved to its Albert Kahn-designed headquarters on Grand Boulevard, one block west of Woodward, in 1921. In 1925, the Chrysler Corporation moved to a new headquarters at Colorado and Oakland streets, three blocks east of Woodward in Highland Park.

The wealth that auto manufacturing generated produced the fabulous homes of the Boston-Edison historic district, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Palmer Woods, the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Zoo, the State Theatre, the Fox Theatre and downtown skyscrapers.

The human energy characterized by these historic sites also is remarkably intact. Each summer more than a million people turn out to participate in the Dream Cruise, showing off or watching the world’s longest and largest parade of collector cars. Detroit’s downtown, which still has roughly 70,000 jobs, has new restaurants, sports stadiums, recreation, housing, parks and an increasingly active nightlife. The Wayne State University district is becoming a much livelier hub for students, thanks to new dormitories, restaurants and condominiums. New Center, the malls in Highland Park, the active street scenes in Ferndale and Royal Oak, and Pontiac’s historic district all indicate the powerful pull of Woodward’s gravitational field.

But Ms. Carmona and her association are convinced that all of these places, and the more than 150 events along the avenue each year, need to be better tied together, not by cars, but by fast, convenient, rapid transit.

This, too, is not a new idea.

Revived study
Six years ago the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), the regional research and planning organization, hired the IBI Group, a California-based consulting firm, to study the feasibility of constructing a rapid transit line along Woodward Avenue, reviving service that ended in 1956. The study’s authors concluded that “there is a strong need and justification for rapid transit in the Woodward corridor” to support and connect downtown Detroit to Oakland County’s suburbs. The report also suggested that the best technology was either light rail or a bus rapid transit system that used dedicated lanes.

Both could be built at a reasonable cost.

Light rail, said the study, would cost about $55 million a mile — which is comparable to the per mile cost of constructing a divided highway. The actual costs of building light rail systems in other cities has ranged from a low a low of $19.5 million per mile in St. Louis, to a high of $60.3 million per mile in Portland.

Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick has periodically expressed support for a modern light rail system in the city and along Woodward Avenue. Four years ago he told the Congressional House Committee on Housing and Transportation about the findings of the Woodward Avenue feasibility study and said, “We are now working to move ahead to implement an alternative transit method in this corridor.”

Transportation Riders United, the Detroit transit advocacy group, reported last week that more than 31,000 people ride the bus along Woodward each weekday, according to figures from Detroit and suburban bus lines. The group noted that, in most cases, based on the findings of transit ridership studies in Denver, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Salt Lake City, speedy trains increase ridership drastically by attracting new riders: 40 percent to 70 percent of light rail riders are new to transit. Megan Owens, the executive director of Transportation Riders United, says that means that “we could have 40,000 to 50,000 daily riders on a new Woodward light rail line.”

She added: “Once built, light rail is less expensive to operate than busses. A Woodward light rail line could save money and increase the effectiveness of our transportation investment.”

Bus rapid transit, which uses vehicles similar to light rail, but with a dedicated roadway instead of tracks, would cost only about $2 million to $5 million a mile to build, said the 2001 study. Ms. Owen said that estimate is too low. A new bus rapid transit system in Cleveland cost $24 million a mile.

Until very recently, though, this kind of discussion didn’t get much official attention here. The Woodward transit study, and the nine others conducted by SEMCOG over the years, existed in a kind of bureaucratic deep freeze, stored in the dark where they wouldn’t interfere in the plans of a regional agency much more dedicated to studying and funding new freeways and water systems.

Renewed Support for Transit
But as Ms. Carmona says, things are changing in Southeast Michigan. Late last year, Tom Barwin, the city manager in Ferndale and a tireless advocate for a new regional rapid transit system, urged the Woodward Avenue Action Association to bring the IBI Woodward corridor transit study out of SEMCOG’s freezer and implement its recommendations.

Mr. Barwin drafted a proposal for the association’s board, that called for 1) starting the next phase of research and design needed to secure federal funds for building the transit line, 2) seeking allies in a campaign to amend the state Constitution to allow for new regional taxes to help finance rapid transit systems, and 3) helping develop a competent regional transit agency to build and manage the system.

On Dec. 8, 2005, Mr. Barwin’s proposal was approved in a near-unanimous vote by the association’s board. “It was an important moment,” said Mr. Barwin. “It confirmed everything that we’ve been hearing almost everywhere we go now. People tell us they want regional transit. Whether it’s a college kid going to school at Wayne State, a professional going downtown, workers going to jobs in the suburbs, it’s the same conversation. People would like to have a rapid transit system in their lives and in their family’s lives.”

Mr. Barwin, who just announced that he is leaving Ferndale to manage Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, also is convinced that the favorable vote on his motion is part of a new economic activism in the region. The same elements of urgency and creativity are starting to converge around other basic building blocks of metropolitan prosperity — business development, leadership, transportation and land use — in a way not seen in Detroit in a very long time.

Transit Foes Become Transit Friends
If you doubt this, consider three more regional advances that bear special note:

First, the weeklong festivities surrounding Super Bowl XL proved that Detroit business and civic leaders, along with thousands of volunteers, are capable of executing a complex plan to renovate and polish the downtown core, so much so that more than a million people took part, and Detroit’s hospitality was praised in the global media.

Second, Wayne and Washtenaw county officials are awaiting the findings of a crucial study to choose the preferred technology – light rail, commuter rail or bus rapid transit – on a regional rapid transit line between Detroit and Ann Arbor, with stops in between, including at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. SEMCOG has finished the report and is expected to make it public very soon.

Third, L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive, appears to be reconsidering his fierce resistance to a regional rapid transit system. During the June business conference on Mackinac Island, he and the leaders of Detroit, Wayne and Macomb counties announced they had appointed former Democratic state Senator John Hertel to revive the Regional Transit Coordinating Council, an 18-year-old intergovernmental agency. Mr. Hertel’s charge: Galvanize public support to design a public transit system that serves southeast Michigan. “I’ve always been a supporter of regional mass transit,” Mr. Patterson told reporters. “I’ve always considered it an issue of economic development.”

Well, not always. Although he supported a property tax increase to help fund the SMART suburban bus system four years ago, he’s announced his opposition to the construction of a rapid transit line between Detroit and Ann Arbor, and has not indicated any support for a rapid transit line on Woodward.

There are more than 200,000 jobs on or very near Woodward Avenue, and many more residents within walking distance, according to U.S. Census and SEMCOG transit studies. Moreover, in contrast to what Mr. Patterson and other transit critics contend, the population density along the corridor and within the region is more than sufficient to support a regional rapid transit system. According to a 2001 SEMCOG study, southeast Michigan’s population density is about 3,251 people per square mile, 11th highest of the 25 largest metropolitan regions. The Detroit region’s population density, in fact, is higher than 12 other metropolitan regions, among them Minneapolis, Dallas, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Houston, that have built regional rapid transit systems in the last decade or so, and are experiencing record rates of transit ridership. By the way, they also are experiencing much higher levels of regional prosperity.

“The excitement is in the air now for transit,” said Ms. Carmona. “There are more and more people talking about it. I don’t know why we’ve gone so long without it. But when people get excited about something, good things can get done. There is a good opportunity now to make a change.”

Keith Schneider is a journalist and editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A longer version of this article appeared in the July 5, 2006 edition of Metrotimes, Detroit’s largest weekly, which is publishing a series of articles on southeast Michigan’s campaign to build public support for a regional rapid transit system. Reach Keith at keith@mlui.org.

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