M1 Rail chief Cullen: The right people are in the room, money is there

At the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) annual meeting earlier this month, transit was certainly on the agenda. A clip from Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City, a PBS special that first aired nationwide on February 8 and will re-air locally in April, was shown, and director Aaron Woolf said a few words. Many of the other speakers, from Mayor Dave Bing to DDP president Ann Lang also touched on the subject, but it was the primary focus of Matt Cullen's time on the podium. Cullen, you might remember, had a big hand in the development of the Detroit RiverWalk from his position at General Motors and has now made a move over to Quicken Loans, where he is tasked with shepherding the privately-financed M-1 Rail project to fruition.

Model D thought it was time to catch our readers up on the project, so we had a little phone chat with Cullen.

Model D: Can you spell out where the M-1 Woodward light rail project currently stands?
Cullen: Well, it's a $125 million project for the first phase, from Hart Plaza to Grand Boulevard, and we have essentially all the money together, we have just a little more to raise. It's 3.4 miles, both sides of the street, so it's 6.8 miles of rail, and there are 12 stations. We've spent time on collaborations with city, state and federal branches of government and right now, we are working hard with the state on an opportunity that, at the same time that we're building the rail, they would be rebuilding Woodward with stimulus money. Instead of just repaving, it would be rebuilding infrastructure -- sidewalks, wireless, lighting, utilities -- getting it in top-notch shape, what they call a 20-year rebuild.
They are working on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) with the Feds to make sure that everything is handled properly, so we're working with them on that basis, and the state received some TIGER grant money to to help on that project.
The city and all of us are looking at us using this initial investment as matching dollars for the second phase, which will take (the rail line) out to Eight Mile. To use it as the match, we have to look at the project holistically, first with the EIS, and demonstrate to the Feds that this is a viable project, and so much private money will really help that process.

MD: What is the absolute best case scenario for construction to begin on these two phases?
Cullen: Well, best case scenario is that the EIS takes nine to 12 months, so we start construction at the end of 2011, build 2012, and we're operational in 2013. So get the EIS finished, then immediately construction. If this has worked really well up to the Boulevard, then the second phase (will happen) in a couple more years, so in the 2014 range, the whole thing could be done.

MD: For the skeptics, who will not believe this until they can see it, what would you tell them as to why these efforts will succeed this time?
Cullen: I get the skeptics. This hasn't happened yet because it's pretty hard. And we don't have a lot of credibility with the Feds. I'm not begrudging them their skepticism, but this is the right group of assembled leadership. From the private sector, we have (Roger) Penske, (Dan) Gilbert and myself, and from the governmental community, we have Mayor Bing, (Wayne County Executive Bob) Ficano, (Governor) Granholm ... right up to the federal branch. From the foundation community, we've got Rip Rapson from Kresge, the Ford Foundation supporting transit-oriented development, and we're talking to a number of other foundations. It's a coalition of folks getting their heads around this and, to use a train analogy, once it gets moving, gets momentum, it's difficult for people to stand in front of it. I analogize it to the riverfront: it's a pretty similar process, you get the right people in the room and are inclusive in the process, get people enthusiastic about it, and you can get things done.

Source: Matt Cullen, M-1 Rail
Writer: Kelli B. Kavanaugh

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