Detroit transit news: Woodward Light Rail on track to extend from the riverfront to 8 Mile Road

August is starting out well for Detroit. The Obama Administration sent U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to the city Monday (Aug. 2) morning to deliver the good news: 9.3 miles of Woodward Avenue Light Rail, from the Detroit River to 8 Mile Road, will be shepherded through the system as one single project.

This means, for the first time, private funding -- in this case, $125 million in funds raised for the M1 Rail Line that was to stretch 3.4 miles from the Detroit River to New Center -- is being leveraged as matching funds for a federal transit project. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick and Sen. Carl Levin were given credit for the enabling legislation that allowed this exception. The total project would cost $450-$500 million.

Mayor Dave Bing, who announced the news at a press conference held in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts overlooking Woodward, says that the City of Detroit will be the local project sponsor. He credits Gov. Jennifer Granholm for the state's contribution of $25 million in TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) funds. Bing says the rail line has potential to generate economic spin-off. "The development it will generate is equally as important as the convenient transportation it will provide," Bing says. Expect "transit-oriented development" to be the buzzword in these parts in the coming years.

LaHood stressed Woodward Avenue's historic significance and his hopes that the public-private nature of the Woodward Avenue Light Rail Transit can be emulated elsewhere. "Projects like this cannot be done with just public dollars," he said. "This could be a model for the the country...and an economic engine for this community."

A public meeting will be held on Aug 14 to discuss Woodward Avenue Light Rail from 11 a.m. to 1p.m. and again from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Considine Community Center, 8904 Woodward Ave. in Detroit. Megan Owens, the director of transit advocates Transportation Riders United, says the meeting is an important venue at which to ask questions and voice concerns.

She hopes the next, slightly unrelated transit step for the area is the creation of a regional transit authority so the project can continue north into the suburbs as a part of a broader regional system. "People are asking, 'Why is this stopping at Eight Mile?' " she says. "But we don't currently have a regional agency that can manage the project if it goes beyond, goes outside of Detroit."

First step for the Woodward line: a Notice of Intent was published in the Federal Register on Friday, July 30, for an Environmental Impact Study for the project. The EIS should take 12 to 16 months. Parsons Brinkerhoff will manage the EIS process for the city's Department of Transportation. If all goes according to plan and federal funds are awarded to the project after the completion of the environmental study, the rail line will be up and running in 2016.

Owens is fairly confident that the EIS will come back fine and that federal funding will then be awarded to the project, citing the unprecedented, unified support from federal, state and local governments coupled with the business, institution and philanthropic communities. "We'll have to see how every T is crossed and I is dotted, but we could actually see light rail in Detroit within the next couple of years!"

Construction on the project would begin in 2011, and would be done in two phases. Phase 1 would include Downtown Detroit to West Grand Boulevard, running approximately 3.4 miles. Phase 2 would be West Grand Boulevard to 8 Mile Road.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is development news editor for Model D. Send feedback here.

Photography courtesy Ara Howrani

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