PURE DETROIT — The idea of light rail running up Woodward from downtown Detroit to the New Center district is an exciting prospect. It has the whole community talking. Unfortunately, a lot of information can get lost in all that talk; the facts and the dates getting mixed in with rumors and rampant speculation.
Keeping up with the news certainly helps calm the confusion. Crain’s Detroit recently reported that the initial 3.4-mile line is set and ready to go, citing that the light rail is on an “aggressive timeline” to break ground by the end of the year and running within 18 months of that groundbreaking. The article also shed light on ridership, donations from various corporations, sponsorships for a handful of stations and other worthwhile tidbits.
But still, the wealth of information mixed with a heavy dose of “if” and “when” leaves clarity to be desired. Pure Detroit reached out to Megan Owens, the director of the Midtown-based Transportation Riders United (TRU) for the past five years. The non-profit group is around to improve transit options in the city of Detroit and the surrounding suburbs “in order to restore urban vitality, ensure transportation equity and improve quality of life.” Here’s what she had to say.
PURE DETROIT: Can you shed some light on what has caused the deadline for the light rail project — the aptly titled M-1 — to be pushed back several times?
MEGAN OWENS: It’s important to know that this is a big and complicated project. In a lot of ways, it’s the same magnitude as putting in new highways. There are a lot of questions of the best way to do it. The exciting thing is that just about everyone has agreed that we want this to happen. Now there are very important questions about how to make it and what exactly it should entail.
Yes, the dates have been pushed back a little bit to make sure decisions are made correctly. But there are two different rounds of community engagement opportunities to weigh in on some of the details of the project — where the stops should be, what route it should take in the downtown area and other details like that. It’s still certainly moving forward. We should see groundbreaking within the year. There also should be an announcement within the next month or two about some of these final design plans. Then, they’ll jump into the technical engineering and it’ll get started — breaking the ground and actually building the rails and location.
PD: What role has TRU played in all of this?
MO: We are a grassroots non-profit organization. Unfortunately, we are not making all the technical decisions, but we are being a facilitator of information in making sure the public understands what’s going on and giving them the opportunity to weigh in. We are also trying to make the decision makers understand what the public is interested in to make sure it is the best project that it can be. We’ve done a little bit of research and weighed in ourselves about what we believe, what we can learn from other communities that have done this for and how we can make this the best possible project for improving Detroit transportation and economic development.
PD: Some forward-thinkers out there have already begun to question how safe riders will be once the light rail line is in place and operating. Shortly after the Rosa Parks Transit Center opened, reports of at least one stabbing along with the lack of cleanliness and the facility being closed when it was supposed to be open soon surfaced. How can we expect the light rail to be kept clean and safe when funding issues have been part of the conversation since day one?
MO: You bring up a very valid concern. If the city of Detroit has had trouble maintaining the Rosa Parks Transit Center at the level it needs to be maintained, we certainly don’t want the light rail to have any similar problems. It’s appropriate to ask those questions and challenge the city and the planners to make sure not only that it gets built but that it’s done right … in a way where it can really succeed like it should. That’s part of the reason behind the delays. We have to make sure these challenges and issues are worked through ahead of time so we don’t have to worry about them once it’s launched. While ensuring that this gets done right is absolutely critical, they have thought through security. The last point is that the best way to keep crime down is to have more people around. It’s going to be running right down the heart of Woodward where there is lots of activity. This will really be drawing more people and activity. By that logic, I really don’t think crime will be a problem at all other than your basic pick pocketing or petty theft.
PD: What would you say to people who don’t necessarily doubt that the light rail will happen, but that it will revitalize the area to the extent that’s been touted around?
MO: I’d say that there is certainly some benefit from being one of the last in the country to institute light rail. We can definitely learn from other communities throughout the country. There are over two dozen other examples that we can look at and learn from to make sure we can make it work. A lot of those lessons are already being incorporated into the planning of this project. It’s not a matter of purely you build a light rail and all this development pops up. It does continue to take careful work and planning, but that work and planning is happening and I do have faith in that idea that we can benefit just like other communities have. Given that the national average is $6 return for every dollar invested … well, let’s say we don’t do quite as well. Let’s say we only do half of that. That still means nearly two billion dollars of investment into this corridor. Even if we’re on the low end of the curve, it’ll still be a huge positive for our community. | PD