Getting Woodward on Tracks

Do you dream of cruising Woodward by train?

Building a dedicated mass transit line, such as light rail or bus-rapid transit, up Woodward Avenue between Detroit and Pontiac's downtowns is a no-brainer when you look at the numbers:

Approximately 31,000 people currently ride the buses that go up and down Woodward each day. That's more people than ride the new light rail lines in Minneapolis (16,000), Salt Lake City (19,000) and Denver (28,000 on two lines), and nearly as many as Dallas (42,000 over two lines). Transportation Riders United, a non-profit dedicated to improving mass transit in metro Detroit, estimates a Woodward light rail line would attract between 40,000 and 50,000 riders a day.

Atanas Ilitch spoke up for the potential of the corridor last summer after seats on the Foxtown Tiger Train sold out in a matter of minutes. The Amtrack ride brought people from the suburbs downtown for Tigers games on rails that ran parallel to Woodward — and riders marveled at the convenience of the trip to the city.

That pent-up demand was also proven during the Super Bowl last year, when waits for buses to downtown lasted for hours. DDOT moved more than 800,000 people during the Super Bowl weekend, double its normal ridership during that time. The People Mover carried more than 215,000 during the Super Bowl weekend, about 10 percent of the more than 2.3 million people who rode it in the 2006 fiscal year. That's up from 922,000 in the 2004 fiscal year.

Public support for improving mass transit is also on the rise. Ridership on SMART buses is up 25 percent since 2002. The SMART millage passed overwhelmingly last fall by at least 70 percent in each of the participating counties. It passed with 76 percent of the vote in Oakland County alone.

Pumping up Detroit's main artery

The high number of institutions, communities and people connected by Woodward make it the most logical candidate for a successful dedicated mass transit line.

"No other roadway in the region or in the state has the history or the economic interest that Woodward has," said Heather Carmona, executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, a regional collaboration working to strengthen the Woodward corridor.

More than 300 historic sites are located along the corridor's 27 miles, along with 150 events, 55 key venues, 11 municipalities and five of Metro Detroit's most vibrant downtowns. It's also the state's first highway and a National Scenic Byway commonly referred to as the main street for not only Metro Detroit but for Michigan.

"The answer is clearly, 'Yes,'" said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United. "It makes sense."

About $1.5-billion has been invested along the Woodward corridor since 2003, and local leaders say a viable mass transit line will bring in billions more. They believe such a line can bring communities closer, spur development and increase property values.

"It creates energy and it creates real-estate value because people want to be close to the connection and the connection happens to be transit," said Jerry Burgess, a senior vice president of a large Metro Detroit real-estate firm and chairman of the New Center Council. "Woodward has always been the city's main street. Here's why. It's the DMC. It's the ballparks. It's the community at New Center and Henry Ford Hospital. It's the cultural district. Connecting those things just makes sense."

Burgess is part of a group of local business leaders lobbying for better mass transit along Woodward. They're supporting an expansion of the People Mover to New Center and Henry Ford Hospital, but are open to other options, such as light rail or bus rapid transit.

The idea is an efficient, world-class mass-transit system will allow denser development. That means more business and residential space and fewer parking lots, creating stronger and more energetic city centers.

"Many people want to live, work and play in a vibrant urban center," Owens said. "And they want an easy way to get in and out. Transit can make that happen. We're not going to have a thriving downtown if every other building is a parking structure."

Concentrating development in city centers also puts high density in places designed for it while helping reign in suburban sprawl. Such a line can also decrease air pollution by taking more cars off Woodward and I-75, according to Ben Stupka, a land-program specialist with the Michigan Environmental Council.

"For a better environment light rail up Woodward is the best option because it maximizes land use and is more energy efficient," Stupka said. "It improves the region's air quality by lessening car congestion. The real key is it would relieve congestion around itself."

Political possibilities

Even though the foundation for building a viable mass transit line up Woodward is there, it's still years away from becoming a reality.

Owens estimates it's at the second step of eight. The next steps include choosing a mode of transportation, updating a feasibility analysis finished a few years ago, finding or creating an agency to oversee it, locating a funding source and developing design, engineering and a master plan for it.

"It's at least a five-year process — if everything goes right," Owens said. "Any major construction project like the stadiums or the casinos takes that long. It's a long-term project for a long-term benefit."

Transportation Riders United is lobbying for light rail, arguing there are more than enough riders using the hodge-podge of SMART and DDOT buses on Woodward to warrant a light rail line. Owens points out that ridership on new light rail lines traditionally exceed expectations, bringing in more new riders each year. She adds light rail is more cost efficient in the long term compared to busses by as much as 38 percent.

Putting street cars back on Woodward has been a political nonstarter for decades. However, State Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak, has made establishing a viable mass transit line along the corridor a priority. She and other local lawmakers are pushing for $3 million to update the Woodward feasibility study and cementing a commitment plan by 2010.

She supports the idea of light rail but thinks bus rapid transit is the most feasible option for the immediate future. She believes it can be used as a stepping stone to light rail.

"They (successful mass-transit systems) have all started with a starter line," Donigan said. "And when that line is successful, they have built on that."

Enjoying the ride

Everyday Arlene McFadden goes to work, she takes a bus. The bus route from her Southfield home to her job in downtown Detroit travels mostly along Woodward.

Taking the bus allows her to sit back, relax, read and even make a few new friends while saving a significant amount of money in gas, car maintenance and parking costs. To her the idea of building a light rail line up Woodward is something so sorely needed, it should be expanded throughout Metro Detroit.

"That would be great," McFadden said. "They should build one on Grand River Avenue and Michigan Avenue, too."

Matthew Visnaw agrees. The 47-year-old Ferndale resident, who shares a car with his daughter, rides Metro Detroit buses every day. He believes the metro area's streetcar lines should have never been removed 50 years ago. Visnaw likes the idea of light rail because he believes it's more efficient, can cut through traffic jams and doesn't let him know about every pothole in the road. He thinks the best place to begin rebuilding the system is on the Woodward corridor before expanding it along the area's other major arteries.

"Any other large city has its own light rail system, why not us?" Visnaw said. "We need to catch up with the rest of the country."


Amtrak Train at the Royal Oak Station

Foxtown Tiger Train

People Mover

Riders on the People Mover

People Mover

Royal Oak Station Sign

Smart Bus

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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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