Mass transit off track
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As Karen Kendrick-Hands navigates her gray minivan along the pothole-pocked streets downtown near the Detroit River, she points to the railway that, until the mid-1980s, was used to run commuter trains between Pontiac and the Renaissance Center.
"That's our precious rail line," she says.
If things keep going the way they are now, says Kendrick-Hands, a Grosse Pointe attorney who co-founded the group Transportation Riders United, commuter rail travel between Detroit and outlying cities will remain nothing but a sweet memory. Should the city's three casinos get their anticipated riverfront location, the plan is to build a four-lane freeway in the space now occupied by the railway, known as the Dequindre Cut. Part of the track has already been ripped up by General Motors for a parking structure at its Renaissance Center headquarters.
Despite an apparent rise in public opinion favoring new mass transit, and despite several studies showing that rail is a cost-effective alternative to highways, the people who can actually make the shift happen — elected officials, transportation bureaucrats and corporate leaders — continue to focus exclusively on concrete instead of steel rail when mapping Detroit's transit future.
In fact, some officials are actively discouraging talk of mass transit at a critical time in Detroit's revival. For example, there's the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), which is helping city officials plan to accommodate thousands of new people expected to flock downtown regularly to planned developments including the stadiums, Compuware and the rest of the Campus Martius project, and the riverfront casinos.
At a recent I-375 East Riverfront Area Access Improvement Project meeting, MDOT representative Mohammed Alghurabi specifically asked an advisory council made up of citizens and business leaders not to discuss mass transit. Instead, their recommendations were limited to a selection of concrete reconfigurations including more I-375 on-ramps and changes to downtown streets. Upgrades are to occur along I-375 between I-75 and Atwater Street, with estimated construction costs ranging from $45 million to $65 million.
Meanwhile, city officials have facilitated what some see as a direct threat to future rail travel connecting Detroit with other cities. Kendrick-Hands says the planned casino expressway at most leaves room for only one rail line through the Dequindre Cut, which runs parallel to I-375. Mass transit advocates say that, even if that projection is true, a single rail line isn't enough to run an efficient rail service.
A 1997 study by MDOT and Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), a board in charge of regional transportation planning, showed it would cost $130 million to build rail lines connecting Detroit with Pontiac, Mt. Clemens and Ann Arbor. According to the study, such a rail system would cost between $15 and $20 million per year to operate, over and above projected farebox revenues. Kendrick-Hands says reviving the line from Detroit to Pontiac would cost about the same as the $45 million that casinos expect to spend on the one-and-a-quarter miles of four-lane highway.
The estimates made rail seem like a no-brainer. "You get a lot more bang for your buck and you don't have to own a car to use it," Kendrick-Hands says. Moreover, mass transit advocates say the concentration on road building disproportionately affects the one-third of Detroit residents who don't own cars. The continued focus on road building leaves them with no choice but to keep using an underfunded and poorly coordinated bus systems to help them make it out the suburbs, where most of the jobs are.
Carmine Palombo, spokesman for SEMCOG, says a committee that reviewed the rail study determined that its ridership projections were inflated, so the study never went before the full board.
However, the need for improvements to I-375 isn't based on current needs either. It is the projected traffic increase that has officials ramping up to spend tens of millions of dollars. As Dan Dirks, director of the suburban bus system Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), points out, sometimes good planning involves leaving options open to meet possible future demands.
"I don't think there's a demand for rail anywhere in southeast Michigan right now," he says. "There might be five, 10 or 15 years from now." Which means that the time for making sure that's available, says Kendrick-Hands, is now. The problem, she contends, is that the closed-minded approach state, local and regional officials are taking toward transportation could limit Detroit's growth by threatening the future existence of a diversified public transit system. Look at most major cities in the country, and with rare exceptions you will see that rail is a crucial part of the transit mix.
"I think we all understand the scope of this project, the importance of this project," said MDOT's Alghurabi at the Nov. 30 meeting state transportation officials called to discuss the I-375 project. "This project is too precious to have it bogged down with other issues," he said.
Still, a city of Detroit representative passed around a written statement declaring that "the public and the city are concerned about the inclusion of a mass transit option into the I-375 alternatives.
The meeting came soon after a volatile public hearing on the issue, said Carol Weisfeld, an advisory council member and president of the anti-casino Riverfront East Alliance (REAL).
"There were people screaming for mass transit at the last (Nov. 18) public hearing," Weisfeld said. "And (MDOT) said 'We can't help you,' and that's the Michigan Department of Transportation!"
"They (MDOT) don't want to talk about what the public wants to talk about," says Kelly Thayer, transportation specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute.
MDOT's Alghurabi disagrees. He told Metro Times it is pointless for the state to discuss the possible effects of proposed I-375 improvements on transit plans that might not materialize.
According to MDOT spokesman Gary Naeyaert its not his department that's holding up development of a comprehensive public transit plan in southeast Michigan. "We are barred under state law for providing planning services for local transit agencies," Naeyaert says. "We are anxiously awaiting an approved transit plan for downtown Detroit. We will make our improvements to the I-375 corridor compatible with any approved mass transit plan submitted to us."
With regard to rail, Naeyaert says, "It could include flying saucers if that's what transit people want it to do. We're not going to wait to make road and bridge improvements that are sorely needed in this corridor.""
When asked why a rail plan isn't being considered alongside all the plans for highway building and other developments, it doesn't take long for the finger-pointing to begin. According to Naeyaert, regional transportation falls to SEMCOG and local transit agencies, including Detroit Department of Transportation (D-DOT) and SMART.
"SEMCOG determines the transit improvement priorities for southeast Michigan," Naeyaert says. "This passenger rail project is obviously not their highest priority or even a high priority ... I don't hear the city of Detroit, the county commissioners, any of them comment on it."
SEMCOG's Palombo says the board has plenty of vision, just not enough money from the state and other sources to implement any of its transit studies. Nevertheless, he says, the council plans to try again in the year 2000 to come up with a comprehensive transit plan for southeast Michigan. If officials from throughout the region agree with the plan, he says, the challenge will again be securing funding. Palombo says there doesn't seem to be a consensus among public officials or the general public that rail is needed.
"The only thing there's ever been an agreement on is the need for buses in southeast Michigan. We're a planning agency, not an implementing agency," he says. Meaning the finger points back at the state. The Michigan Land Institute's Thayer agrees with those who say that much of the responsibility for a regional transit vision lies with MDOT, because the state holds the transportation purse strings. He says MDOT can and does plan intercity transportation.
"(SEMCOG is) partnering with an entity that shows no interest in fully funding mass transit," asserts Thayer. "There's a pattern of not thinking transit funding is going to be there. Therefore the go-to solution is always new and wider roads."
"What we're being told is that MDOT doesn't want to be social engineers, that they don't want to force people onto buses," Thayer says. "It is social engineering on MDOT's part to require that everyone own an expensive automobile in order to participate in the only well-funded transportation option in this state, which are the roads."
Asked about the rail study, Naeyaert says the study isn't being discussed by transportation or elected officials. He also pointed to SMART and D-DOT, suggesting that Metro Times ask both agencies whether there are any transit initiatives "they'd like to put into the planning stages."
In answering that question, D-DOT director Al Martin says his dream is to expand the People Mover and connect it with a more cost-efficient rail service radiating out to locations including Pontiac, Mt. Clemens and western Wayne County. He says buses would tie into that rail system.
"It would be good if we could put together a regional transit proposal of this nature to put before the federal government and, of course, the state and, if it's possible to have private financial support, that turns it into a true public-private partnership."
And then, Martin says, there's reality. The fact is, to attract federal funding for such a project, "We've got to get our bus program well-situated so we can prove that southeastern Michigan can implement a effective, regional transit network."
"If we come up with a plan in this region, how are we supposed to fund it?" SMART Director Dan Dirks says. "The bottom line issue is funding." Which, he says, puts the onus back on the state.
The real bottom line, says Kendrick-Hands, is that public officials are pointing fingers instead of what they should be doing — working together to make the metro area a place where everyone can get around. "Nobody's bringing it together," she says. "Every other city in the United States has gotten it together and we haven't yet."