Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Detroit Light Rail Project Short On Cash and Needed Legislation

Detroit and Michigan Politicians and business leaders who expected Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to deliver a gift wrapped $40 million federal grant for construction of the three and a half mile M-1 light rail commuter line from downtown Detroit to Grand Boulevard in New Center were disappointed Monday when all the Secretary brought to their meeting Monday was a 60 day deadline for answering federal concerns about long term operational funding for the project, and the accuracy of lowball construction cost estimates and highball ridership estimates.  While Detroit Mayor David Bing characterized LaHood’s presentation to the supporters of the $137 million project as enthusiastic, saying LaHood “made it very clear that there’s nowhere else in the country that he’s seen this kind of commitment from the business community,” both LaHood and Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff skipped the press conference after the 90 minute meeting with project supporters.

The proposed 3.5 mile line promises 16 minute trips from Congress in downtown Detroit through 10 intermediate stops to Grand Boulevard in New Center, with trains running every seven and a half minutes during rush periods to every twelve minutes the rest of the day. Funding commitments for M-1, led by Kresge Foundation’s $35 million pledge, include promises of $3 million or more each from Penske, Quicken Loans, Compuware, Detroit Medical Center, Ilitch Companies, Wayne State University and Henry Ford Health System, and less generous grants from Chevrolet, Chrysler, Kellogg Foundation, and Blue Cross/ Blue Shield of Michigan, among others. So far supporters have raised pledges totaling $84 million, but LaHood doubts that adding $40 million in federal funds would make up the actual construction costs of the line.

Besides underestimating the cost of building the line, LaHood also suspects the projected initial fare paying ridership of 3 million trips per year is overstated. The feds want better backup of current projections or revised estimates more in line with reality. And, after 2025 M-1 proposes to turn the system and its operating costs to a regional transportation authority, but legislation creating such a local entity is stalled in Lansing, where Michigan Governor Rick Snyder wants the rail line to hook up with a proposed 110 mile rapid transit bus system serving Detroit’s suburbs, Metro Airport, and Ann Arbor. Unless that RTA bill passes soon, Detroit’s light rail future looks bleak.

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