Full Steam Ahead: City Advocate, Quicken Exec Talks Streetcars Along Woodward

The group of private investors pushing for a streetcar line up Woodward has played it close to the vest. However, one of the leaders of that group, Matthew Cullen, spoke to Model D's Jon Zemke about the project.

Cullen serves as the CEO of the project. He is also an executive with Quicken Loans, shepherding the firm's move to downtown. Before that he was an executive in charge of economic development with General Motors for years. The University of Detroit-Mercy graduate played significant roles in moving the automaker to the Renaissance Center and establishing RiverWalk project.

He's looking to make the same thing happen with the proposed Woodward streetcar line. The $100-million project calls for creating a streetcar line between Jefferson and Grand Boulevard, connecting downtown and New Center. The streetcar would also serve as a feeder line for the proposed commuter rail line connecting Detroit, Metro Airport and Ann Arbor.

Cullen sheds a little light on when we can expect to see the proposal become a reality, why it will work and how it will change Detroit's greater downtown area.

Q: As a Cass Corridor resident and someone who appreciates real mass transit, I just want to say thank you for pushing this project forward. With that in mind let me ask the elephant-in-the-room question that is on everyone's mind: When can we expect construction to begin and to have the system up and running?

A: It really is a terrific opportunity for the city of Detroit. A lot of people believe, I am certainly one of them, that its one of things that could bring significant change for the city so it can go forward. As far as timing, we really don't have a definitive time that I would like to announce at this time, but we're working through it. It is a project that, now that we have the enabling legislation, we are really excited about. We feel we have a lot of the financial aspects of it finished. We need to do some more. We need to work through the design and really start ramping up on it.

Q: Come on, can't you give us a little something to hope for here as far as a potential timeline goes?

A: Again, I can't say when we'll be in the ground. We certainly would like to be in the ground within the course of the next couple of years, maybe earlier than the end of that time. We've got a lot of work to be done and it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to give a date and then not make it. We're moving full speed ahead though.

Q: On the other side of that coin, dozens of rapid transit plans have come and gone in Metro Detroit over the last 50 years. Why should we believe this one will come to fruition?

A: Why should you believe in it? I think you should believe in it because of the work the governor has done together with the speaker of the house and Mike Bishop in the senate and everyone else -- together with the private-partnership aspect of Roger Penske and Dan Gilbert and the Ilitches, and a lot of other folks. It feels for me a lot like the Riverfront project where we have a great public-private partnership coming together to get it done. I think that is the most effective way.

Q: When we look down lower Woodward 10-20 years from now, what will we notice is different about it besides the streetcars going up and down it?

A: There will be a lot more density and development. This brings the ability to move around within an urban core. … I think we'll see a lot more density. We’ll see a lot more development. We'll see a lot more retail. A lot more urban energy is what we're going to end up with in a short period of time.

Q: Sort of like what we see in a Chicago or San Francisco or Washington, D.C., today?

A: You can keep going down the list right? Almost every major urban area in the world has some kind of transit and we have not had much. What is really nice about the streetcar design is it is pedestrian friendly. It does bring things together. It doesn't segregate them or put them off physically. Portland is a great example. It has a similar system. It is a great example of what can happen. It had experienced tremendous development after it put its streetcar system in place.

Q: Big picture, how can this project combined with the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail line change life in Metro Detroit economically a generation from today?

A: This project by itself isn’t the answer. This is a critical link because it is the most important physical link, if you will, because of the core of downtown. Importantly. it will tie in with the New Center train station, which already takes people to Chicago or Royal Oak or Birmingham or Pontiac. It's great first step, but it really is an enabler for broader network of regional mass transit.

Certainly John Hertel is going to take the lead on that planning. You can see very quickly that as the Ann Arbor to Detroit line happens, which will be much more utilized because it will enable people to get downtown instead of just to New Center. As it builds up there is going to be a lot of energy around it because it will be connected to the airport. Then you can start saying well maybe we should have a link that takes you from New Center out to 8 Mile or 11 Mile or another one up Gratiot.

It has to start with the first step. In this instance it's a very significant first 3.5 mile step. In and itself it's not enough. We need to use it as the enabler for something bigger.

Q: This is still the Motor City. Can we really expect to see light rail lines going up Metro Detroit's spokes in the next 20 years if this project goes forward?

A: I think so. I don't think the two are incompatible. … There is a role for mass transit. Communities around the world have shown they are not incompatible. Detroiters love their cars, but I think particularly from an urban standpoint, if you're really going to have mass transit that is the key to a successful region. …

A strong urban core is the centerpiece of any successful global regional economy. Everyone needs to drive downtown. Surface parking lots and parking decks and everything takes a lot the vitality out of a downtown. It makes it inconvenient for people to move around and recreate and work. I don’t think they're incompatible and I do think they'll be successful in Detroit.

Q: What about the arguments that a population in love with the automobile won't ride a train or that light rail won't spur economic growth in a region where big-box stores, strip malls and McMansions in township cul-de-dacs are the norm?

A: Look at Denver. Look at Minneapolis. Look at other areas that have been very automotive focused and big land areas and so on. Transit has been a huge enabler.

Q: Why start with Woodward? More specifically, why start with this section of Woodward?

A: Woodward is the central spine of the Detroit metropolitan area. It connects to the station in New Center and the core of downtown and the People Mover, which will become a distribution vehicle as it was always intended to be. On a bang-for-the-buck standpoint there is no link that is more important. ... That relatively modest 3.5 mile link creates a lot of opportunities immediately. It also becomes a match opportunity for other links in the rail system as we go forward.

Jon Zemke is the Innovation + Job News Editor for Model D. He is also the News Editor for Model D's sister publications metromode and Concentrate. His last feature for Model D is Detroiters Want to Recycle Here and his most-recent feature on mass transit is The Future of Metro Mass Transit. He misses the experience of commuting on the Red line of Washington, D.C.'s, Metro subway system.

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Aerial view of Downtown Detroit

Matt Cullen

Ambassador Bridge Gateway Project, now 70% complete

Map of streetcar line along Woodward Ave


Evening rush hour on I-75 & Trumbull Ave

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.
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