Monday, December 19, 2011

Despite the ax, Kresge remains committed to Detroit's light rail project

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Rip Rapson, the president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, issued a statement formally responding to the announcement that a long-planned light-rail project in Detroit would be abandoned in favor of a regional bus rapid transit system. The foundation is part of the private funding group that initiated the rail project. Members of that group, M1 Rail, together pledged almost $100 million. Kresge's commitment is $35 million.

Below is his formal statement:

In March 2009, The Kresge Foundation Board of Trustees approved a $35 million grant toward the construction of a 3.4-mile, fixed rail system in the Woodward Avenue Corridor of Detroit to connect people from Detroit's riverfront to the Midtown and New Center districts to the north.
There was clearly risk associated with a project of this scale and scope. We were willing to take the risk because we believed that Detroit needed this catalytic investment to restore its standing as a world-class city.

We expected that this line would stimulate private investment, prompt businesses and jobs to relocate in the heart of Detroit, retain and attract residents seeking an urban lifestyle, strengthen the city and add to its vibrancy and long-term economic prosperity. Those expectations are today being met.

Over the past three years, the mere prospect of a light rail line has:

• Propelled the development of hundreds of millions of dollars in new real estate projects up and down the avenue.
• Fueled decisions by large employers to move to or expand their investment and footprint in the city.
• Given rise to midtown and downtown housing incentive programs.
• Attracted in excess of $100 million in new grant and loan commitments by national foundations and financial institutions.
• And stoked excitement and hope among Detroit residents for a different future in neighborhoods long passed over by market forces.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing shared with residents of the region their plan to create a Regional Transit Authority for southeast Michigan and establish a Bus Rapid Transit system on major corridors in metropolitan Detroit's tri-county area.

That vision assumed the community needed to abandon the light rail project that has been years in the making.

We share the desire of our elected leaders to create new funding mechanisms for transportation and improve transportation options for Detroiters and their suburban neighbors through an interconnecting web of bus rapid transit routes. We believe firmly, however, that light rail, through Detroit's premier commercial, medical, educational and cultural corridor from the riverfront to city's New Center district, should still stand as the heart of that system.

This is not about either bus rapid transit or light rail, but instead about how one can nest within the other. The Woodward light rail project was designed to complement a regional Bus Rapid Transit by supporting a revitalized, livable, walkable, vibrant downtown. The question is whether we can build, operate and financially support a light rail system in a way that strengthens the regional system envisioned by the governor.

The foundation says the members of the M1 Rail board, which has overseen the private sector's efforts to bring light rail to Woodward Avenue, do not share that view.

Whether or not we are correct, we owe it to the residents of Detroit, and the region, to explore the question of feasibility and affordability with discipline and thoroughness.

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