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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Detroit gets $25-million push for light rail corridor

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A light rail plan along Woodward to connect downtown Detroit with New Center will get a $25-million infusion of federal money, officials briefed on the matter told The Detroit News. The federal funds -- to be announced Feb. 17 -- are a big boost for the M-1 Rail Project, which would represent Detroit's first foray into rail-based public transit since the opening of the People Mover in 1987.

The $25 million for the light rail project is half of the $50 million the Michigan Department of Transportation asked for, and it's not contingent on MDOT raising its portion. MDOT spokeswoman Janet Foran said the grant money was requested to cover the cost of "community improvement and roadway rehabilitation" projects related to building the light rail system. But she couldn't comment on whether the state will provide the additional $25 million needed for those projects until Michigan transportation leaders receive official confirmation of the grant Wednesday.

Local funds totaling $93 million, most of it from a consortium of private backers, will pay for the infrastructure of Phase 1, including tracks, train cars and electrical lines to power the trains from Jefferson to West Grand Boulevard. The system will span 3.4 miles, and construction is slated to begin later this year. A total of 12 stations are planned along the route, which officials estimate would be up and running by 2013.

Phase 2, envisioned as connecting New Center northward to Eight Mile and eventually into Oakland County, is still seeking funding and is part of a larger plan to offer mass transit throughout the Metro area and west to Ann Arbor.

While the grant adds heft to the viability of the planned light rail line, it was one of only two Michigan projects that won funding from Washington. The other was bridge work connected to the river crossing between Port Huron and Sarnia.

Transportation initiatives that didn't make the cut include proposed rail lines running from Howell to Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor to Detroit, land purchase and other preparatory work for the Detroit International River Crossing in southwest Detroit to Windsor and repainting of the iconic Mackinac Bridge.

The grant is part of a number being announced by U.S. Transportation Department officials. In total, $1.5 billion in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants are being awarded in 40 of the 50 states.

Michigan applied for 45 grants; MDOT asked for 10, totaling more than $400 million in road, bridge and public transit projects, said Foran, the MDOT spokeswoman.

Megan Owens, a longtime transportation advocate, said the federal funding added heft to the light rail project, which began as a push from private investors and has morphed into a public-private partnership that has the potential to grow into a regional system.

"This is very exciting because this region and the whole state is desperately underfunded for transit and has been for years," said Owens, executive director for Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based advocacy group.

"We know from other communities that investments in transit can have a powerful return for the community, and yet our bus systems are struggling to get people where they need to go. We have a lot of ideas that are still a ways off, (but) yes, if there were to be a substantial federal investment, it would be a huge benefit."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talked with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing about the project at a White House jobs summit last fall.

"We want to work with Detroit," LaHood told Bing. Bing's office hadn't heard about the funding announcement and wouldn't comment.

LaHood said the grants "will open up the door to many new innovative and cutting-edge transportation projects" that "will promote greater mobility, a cleaner environment and more livable communities."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, said the federal funds would help Detroit establish a firm foundation for public transit development.

"Detroit has had an all-bus fleet for decades, and the city has long struggled to build a rapid transit line along the Woodward Avenue corridor," Levin said. "This funding is a vital vote of confidence from the U.S. Department of Transportation and is a huge boost to move this project forward. Developing a light rail system along Woodward Avenue is an extraordinary public-private partnership that will create jobs and will spur economic development that will create even more jobs."

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