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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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