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Detroit's Model Train

Are we really supposed to be excited by the government's announcement that it's green lighting an environmental impact study for the Woodward Light Rail Project in Detroit? Should Detroiters think that, transportation-wise, this idea can help carry this city where we need to go? I'm not so sure.

The proposed rail would cover only 9.3 miles, running from Hart Plaza downtown to "almost" Eight Mile Road, the city's border. Basically, it would be the Detroit People Mover — a 2.9-mile monorail that connects 13 stations scattered through downtown Detroit — but on cheap steroids. And the relatively few people who'd use it probably wouldn't go much further than the theater district or the cultural center most times. So for all practical purposes, it'll be like hitching a ride with your boy from the African World Day festival on the riverfront to catch Chris Rock at the State Theater or Henry O. Tanner at the DIA. Thanks for the lift, homie, but this isn't a ride that inspires visions of a world-class Detroit.

The total project, which will create a light rail system with multiple stops to spur economic growth along the Woodward rail corridor, is expected to cost from $450 million to $500 million. So far, $125 million in private and public funds have been raised to complete the first phase with the hope that the federal government will pick up much of the rest.

"As far back as Coleman Young's first term as mayor, there's been a great deal of discussion and efforts to develop a light rail system here in the city," said Mayor Dave Bing.

So what does it take to get a real mass transit system around here? We certainly need one. The system we've got is a mess, underutilized (though critical  for those who do rely on it), too often unsafe and stunningly inefficient. The truth is, we don't even have a system. We've got two, a citywide system run by the Detroit Department of Transportation and a system for "Greater Detroit," overseen by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART). But sometimes, it's like we have no system at all — especially if you're one of the thousands of Detroiters who wait long hours in subzero snowfalls and on scorching summer days for late-running buses, only to then have to still hoof it for long blocks because there's no other stop closer to your destination. (I watched my mother deal with this for nearly my entire childhood — back when the system wasn't nearly as bad.)

Add to this the fact that many of the decent-paying jobs left around here lie outside the city and its bedroom suburbs — and thus out of the reach of many Detroiters who need them most — and the need for an honest-to-goodness, big-city transportation network becomes even more critical. So what's the transportation geniuses' plan to connect the two? Again, if this is it, color me underwhelmed.

I know what we want to tell ourselves about what this plan could be‚ but how can anybody who's lived here be convinced that this current "small-step" plan, which is pretty much a twinkle in a few stakeholders' eyes, will be anything more than a slightly larger version of the light-rail train currently going in circles around downtown? Maybe it's just me, but why does it seem we always think these tentative, baby-step projects will carry us over fantastic lengths if we just have faith and a handful of fleeting federal dollars?

Sorry, but that has never been enough to a sound light-rail idea where it really needs to go — past Eight Mile Road.

Even if you're not from Detroit, you probably know the Eight Mile metaphor, how the thoroughfare serves as the physical dividing line between city and suburbs and a cultural dividing line between black and white. As much as any other civic issue, public transportation has always laid bare the deep-seated regional conflicts symbolized by Eight Mile Road — and the toxic racial antipathy that courses beneath much of those conflicts. We've long needed a cohesive and effective system that tentacled out from the city and deep into the metro suburbs, right on up to Ann Arbor. But while there are legitimate regional concerns that have hampered these efforts, racist paranoia — a fear of black criminals with MetroPasses ransacking the white suburbs — has been as major a stumbling block as anything else.

Are things so different now? If not, then the Woodward rail won't matter much. If so, then let's quit it with the baby steps and stride like a city in full.

Want to know my fear of where this ride is likely to lead? Then let's hop back on the People Mover for a second: As Bing mentioned, back in the 1970s, this same sort of hype and hope surrounded  Mayor Young's plans for light rail in Detroit, which was, even then, more ambitious than the proposed Woodward train. Young envisioned a system that would  cost more than a half-billion dollars and that would run throughout the entire metro Detroit region, connecting city and suburbs alike. But the plan was opposed throughout the region from the start, beset by regional division and less-than-subtle racial anxiety. And when Ronald Reagan became President in 1980, the federal support for the idea withered. Twenty-three years after the People Mover began operating, Young's vision still hasn't gone any further than downtown.

I hate to seem cynical...well, not really...but I do want the best solution for our transportation woes. And I agree that a muscular plan could help the region get moving. I just don't want to have to wait two more decades before we take another small step.

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  • 1

    If you support a regional transit system you should support this first line. You are right about the non-starts of course.

    I do wish we would have built an elevated train train. It would keep traffic separate so the streams can't maim and slow each other down. Though that'd make the monorail jokes even more pertinent.

  • 2

    Who is Melvin Turner and why is he wearing a Detroit Police Badge?

    Police Officers must have the trust and respect of the community to effective protect the community?

    Then why is Melvin Turner wearing a police uniform?

    Just like Warren Evans, while Melvin Tuner was the 2nd in command at the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, he notoriously dated a female Lieutenant (Pam McClain) who he directly supervised, and promoted another of his girlfriends to the rank of Commander Rose Fodera.

    Melvin Turner was fired from 4 different police departments.

    He was fired from his $185,000 per year job as Undersheriff of the Wayne County Sheriff's Department after he beat up his baby momma, but not right away, because who cares if cops beat up their baby mommas. He was fired only after being convicted of domestic violence and had his police powers taken away.

    Next he took a job as police chief in Highland Park, Melvin came in and broke the backs of the Police Union and helped the city to go bankrupt. The police department was dissolved.

    Next he convinced the Emergency Financial Manager in Hamtramck, however the Hamtramck Cops disliked Melvin Turner and filed complaints and whistleblower lawsuits against him. The Emergency Financial Manager investigated the complaints and decided to fire Melvin Turner.

    Then he arrived in Sumpter Township as Chief of Police. He pissed off everyone there from the city dog catcher to the Township Supervisor. Seem Melvin thought the Township should provide him with his personal police car to take home. He was fired at one year.

    Then Melvin applied for every open police chief job in the State of Michigan and the State of Texas. When Clinton Township told him to hit the brick and that he was a four time looser, the filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against them claiming they would not make him Chief of Police because he was a dark black guy.

    Melvin Turner lead the State Police on a high speed chase down the lodge freeway.

    Melvin Turner was told that he was barred from testifying against drug dealers because many of the Circuit Court judges found him to be habitually untruthful witness. (a liar)

    Melvin Tuner has several complaints filed against him by drug dealers stating that he had unlawfully taken their gold jewelry for his own personal use. Melvin Turner had a retail store were he sold second hard goods and allegedly a lot a stolen merchandise.

    Melvin Turner threatened to shoot and kill Wayne County's Personnel Director when she told him politely it was not appropriate for him to attempt to kiss her and other females on the cheek at the start of a meeting. She advised Melvin that a hand shake was proper for the workplace.

    Melvin Turner was sued for sexual harassment by one of his female subordinates.

    Warren Evans hired Melvin Turner to be Deputy Chief of Police in Detroit.

    Mayor Bing and his new broom is sweeping clean. Time to sweep Mel Turner right out the door.

  • 3

    Great to be cynical on this one... it displays intelligence.

    Street Cars are far less expensive.

    The Brazilian system of great buses and wonderful mini stations seen on TED is far more intelligent.

    But you have to have an O and a D... meaning origins and a Destination. On this count it makes no sense at all.

    This is the same thing as the red light bar downtown or the rape of the School system going on right now.

    It seems that some politicians loose it when they get in power and advocate for the most stupid and costly solutions imaginable. The reason is kickbacks.

    This is as nutty as it gets.


  • 4

    It sounds like just another great way to get to the city. This could also help people who live outside the city but work in the city get there without the use of a vehicle.

    A good example would be the 1,700 workers from Quicken Loans looking to get to work downtown.

  • 5

    There is a huge difference between the Woodward light rail project and the Detroit People Mover. DPM doesn't work because it doesn't connect to any city neighborhoods. 99.8% of the people who use DPM have to at some point use a private automobile or bus to get from their home to a DPM access point. The Woodward project would actually connect city residents to destinations via rail without need for an intermediary mode of transportation. And if properly designed, it could be finally be the extension of the DPM project that was sorely needed to make it a viable system from the beginning.

    That said, my biggest criticism of the current plan for the Woodward project is that it needs to be grade separated. Grade separation would probably quadruple the price of the project, so I understand why it isn't in the plans just now. But if this project is ever built (and that's still a substantial "if", IMO), I think Detroit will understand the need for a grade separated transit line, and likewise invest in one.

    As for whether this line needs to run into the suburbs: NO! The 9.2 miles currently planned is long enough... Especially without grade separation. The most that I could support is extending this line into Ferndale. Other than that the length of the line will start to introduce latency issues.

    Suburbs should be serviced by commuter rail systems (ala Long Island Railroad, NJ Transit, Illinois Metra), that tie into the city's transit network... such as the one that SEMTA (now SMART) used to operate until the 1980s.

  • 6

    Hard to judge completely until we've heard how this fits into the mayor's grand vision for the city, which isn't clear yet. In the end, what does he see Detroit growing into?

    I just wrote a longer blog entry on this topic if anyone's interested:

  • 7

    Agree with you Double-D, and take exception to a comment by Laphoque...

    IF First Steps are successful - Functionally and Financially - then the initial investment makes sense in that it becomes the 'springboard' to the next step or phase and the concept of incrementalism is 'good'! If however darrell is correct (and I think that he is) in that the Woodward Avenue Line would make for only a 'tourist showpiece' without satisfying any real Urban/Regional needs - then it will be deemed a 'Failure' - and there will not be a 'next step'


    Instead of the State investing $5-BILLION (that's BILLION) for a new Bridge to Canada to handle traffic that scarcely exists... that say HALF of that was spent on improving functional and aesthetic standards on all major avenues and boulevards going To/From the City:
    Grand River


    100 New Buses - running semi-express to/through on dedicated busways and limited making stops at 'Bump-outs' with mini stations... Running every 15-20 minutes at average speeds double current

    WITH heavy rail service instead developed to/from Metro Airport from downtown (do I dare say it?! - MICHIGAN CENTRAL STATION) and possibly Metro Airport to/from AA...

    The $5-BILLION for a Bridge can/should be spent in ways that will provide so very much more!

  • 8

    While I understand your hesitancy to fully support any long term plan the governing bodies in this area come up with, you have to start somewhere. The Woodward Corridor is clearly the logical starting point and "only 9.7 miles" is it's entire expanse within the city limits. The difference this time around is that the push, planning and even funding has a large private component, which changes things dramatically. There are people and organizations which actually know what they're doing and do not enjoy losing money. It's well thought out and subsequent phases are already in development. Recent history shows us that it is nearly impossible to reinvigorate a major city center without the introduction of solid public transit. Minneapolis, Denver, Boston, Portland, etc, etc, have all seen success by adding or expanding lines.
    Buses are an important part of any transit system, but ours is dysfunctional, at best. I've lived in either Ferndale or Detroit for a good chunk of time now and have ridden extensively. I spent two months exclusively riding buses to see if it was even possible. It's not. Anybody who says it works, or works okay, or is even acceptable has never experienced quality transit before. Commuting 4 or more hours per day to get to a minimum wage job in the suburbs is a disgrace.
    I'm excited for the light rail. I'm excited for the eventual connection to Metro Airport and Ann Arbor. I truly believe that these two phases, if installed and administered efficiently, will lead to rapid expansion and exponential private investment.

  • 9

    I think that it's about darned time that this project got going. No, it's not what it really needs to be, which is a fully comprehensive transit system for the entire metro area.

    I feel that since the US taxpayers are majority owners in General Motors and minority stakeholders in Chrysler, both these companies should be forced to get on board with manufacturing for the transit industry- rail cars, hybrid/electric buses, train tracks, etc. Re-open those factories that were shut down. Open new factories, especially in previously abandoned locales like urban Detroit and elsewhere. I have written letters to officials, appointees and activists from the President on down, but so far this angle has only barely reached public discourse. The whole "quick-wash get-in-get-out" hands-off managing of the auto bailouts has been maddeningly wrongheaded.

    Progressive tax reform is needed to help keep a more expanded transit system alive. Unfortunately, there are folks in various suburbs who adhere to anti-tax absolutism and barely veiled racial animus, who do things like have their cities opt-out of SMART, and thus adding more headaches for anyone who wants to travel to or from said cities for work, school, etc.

    Brooks Patterson wisely supported the SMART millage renewal, but he is still an obstinate crank when it comes to actually forming the multi-region Transit Authority. Even parties within the Bing Administration's Transportation Dept. are fearful for their jobs "if" a real Transit Authority gets going, and so they are stonewalling, too.

    The grudges of the past may end up derailing this project (pun intended) if the ultra-cynics have their way. I suggest that folks go to the 'TRU' website, and keep up on the developments.

  • 10

    So let me see if I have this right. You complain about the current government run bus system as "unsafe and stunningly inefficient." But then you advocate for the government to then spend BILLIONS (since government projects always have cost overruns) to start up a regional train system? I have a crazy idea, why doesn't the government fix what is currently broken, the bus system? Oh, that's right, they don't know how to fix it, and so they keep bleeding the people of Metro Detroit to cover their budget shortfalls.

    The government has already proven that they are incompetent at running a small bus system, what makes you think that after spending a couple of BILLION dollars on a train system, that they can run that? And by the naive premise of this article, I can already hear your answer like some women that is being abused by her husband, of "this time its different, I swear that he's going to change". Wake-up and don't keep taking the abuse from the government, thinking that they are going to change, because in sad reality the government is not going to change.

    If this public/private partnership was really serious about setting up a light rail system, they could have already gotten it set-up and running by now on the current infrastructure that is in place. What infrastructure is that? Why none other then the Amtrak rail line that runs from Pontiac to Downtown Detroit to Ann Arbor (then on to Chicago) with stops in between at Birmingham, Royal Oak and Dearborn. For what this group has already spent in “studying the problem”, they could have bought a fleet of about forty NEW double-decker trains from Bombardier, and started light rail service for Metro Detroit, with working capital to spare. Only radical plans will generate radical solutions to Michigan's problems.

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