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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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