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Will a Shorter Light Rail Line Work for Detroit?

10:44 AM EST on January 9, 2012

As far as transit projects go, Detroit light rail has had more than its share of drama and intrigue.

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First it was on. Then it was off. Now it is on again... maybe.

After a nine-mile route was scrapped last month due to funding concerns, the coalition of private investors that had bankrolled a major portion of the project are considering going it alone -- that is, building a three-mile line through Midtown without absorbing any of the funding needed to maintain the city's bus system.

Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic says the plan could work, if a few conditions are satisfied -- and that's a big if at this point:

The line does show some promise, because if Detroit is going to grow at all (it lost more than 230,000 people between 2000 and 2010), it will be in the small area bordered by the Chrysler and Lodge Freeways on the east and west, by Grand Boulevard and the waterfront on the north and south — and that’s exactly the neighborhood the short light rail line is supposed to serve. In that area, within 1/2 a mile of the Woodward corridor, are already 123,000 jobs (map of employment density in corridor) and about 20,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census. Most of the city’s major cultural institutions, including Wayne State University, the sports stadiums, and several casinos, are within walking distance. Connections will be possible not only with the existing bus lines and Amtrak but also with the new BRT services proposed by Governor Rick Snyder last month, meant to link Detroit with the suburbs and the airport, via Michigan, Woodward, and Gratiot Avenues.

A light rail line within this area could be an appropriate addition to the transportation landscape of the city — or it could be the second coming of the much-maligned People Mover, which makes a quarter-mile-radius circle in one direction downtown. That system attracts few riders. But the Woodward corridor, serving real trip needs, could work — under certain conditions.

Such a short corridor must feature trains running very frequently. While many of the riders will be residents commuting to and from work, a significant share is likely to be made up of people transferring from other transit modes and of people who drove into work and need a downtown circulator. For the latter groups, waiting more than five minutes for a train in the middle of the day would represent a significant impediment to using the system, as they have other options, such as walking or buses. But the tenuous nature of financing for transit in metropolitan Detroit suggests that it will not be easy to fund such services, even if a TIF district is established. Once it becomes clear that the light rail line hasn’t solved the city’s woes, can we be sure that the business lobby won’t switch its interests to funding parks or other amenities?

Freemark adds that the line must have dedicated lanes -- not be stuck in slow moving traffic. In addition, the project must not siphon money from the city's existing underfunded transit system. Those are going to be difficult hurdles to clear, he says, but Detroit should do it right, or not do it at all.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Charlottesville Tomorrow reports that Virginia's Lynchburg-to-DC pilot Amtrak line has been renewed by the governor after exceeding expectations -- and even turning a profit. Grid Chicago shares a photo gallery of pedestrian bridges over the city's Lakeshore Drive. And Copenhagenize takes a look back at Southern California's early 20th century bicycling scene.

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