Plans for Detroit light rail system gain support

Posted on February 14, 2011

(AP) — Plans to build a light rail system from Detroit’s downtown to one of its business districts and then several miles further to the border with its northern suburbs appear to be gaining support of many in the city.

But some fear that even if the project advances beyond its initial 3.4-mile stage and links the riverfront to the Eight Mile Road city limits, it will not stretch far enough.

“Where’s it going to go from there?” said Ronnie Henderson. “Ain’t no jobs in this city. It needs to go into the suburbs, not just stop at Eight Mile Road.”

Like a number of Detroit residents, Henderson, 52, does not own a car. He lives along Woodward and relies on Detroit’s bus system and a regional bus line to get to and from various construction projects.

He and about 300 other people attended the first of two Woodward Avenue Light Rail project hearings Saturday. The hearings were designed to open public dialogue about the project and detail how it will impact neighborhoods, jobs and traffic along the planned route.

They were part of the project’s environmental review process.

The deadline for public comment is March 14. A summary of the Federal Transit Administration’s decision about the project is expected in July. That summary is needed before the final design phase for the project can begin.

Metro Detroit is the only large urban area in the country without a rapid transit system, according to Tricia Harr, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Federal, state and city officials signed a deal last month to spend $25 million on the 12-station light rail line between downtown and Grand Boulevard in the New Center area.

The grant money comes from federal stimulus funds and covers only the project’s first phase.

A private group has arranged for about $125 million in private funding for the rail line, which could eventually cover the 9.3 miles from the Detroit River to its northern boundary.

Retired 75-year-old autoworker John Rowsey lives near downtown and looks forward to when a rail line is operational.

“I’d use it just about every day, going back and forth,” said Rowsey, who remembers when electric trolleys ran throughout the city.

“They were faster than the buses,” he said.

City and suburban leaders have talked about a light rail that would link downtown to Pontiac, about 20 miles north-northwest, through parts of the more affluent Oakland County.

City buses stop at Eight Mile. The suburban SMART bus system services Detroit and parts of Oakland and other surrounding counties.

Meanwhile, bus patrons endure rides that can stretch into an hour or more, Henderson said.

“You’re looking at two hours travel time to get to where you’re going, and two hours back,” he said.