Drive continues for light rail projects

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Two good ideas can make a great idea, light rail advocates say.
Southeast Michigan officials are pushing for a commuter rail connecting Ann Arbor and Detroit, as well as a light rail running between downtown Detroit and the New Center area along Woodward Avenue.
Kirk Steudle, director of the Department of Transportation, said the projects have the potential to offer better options to travelers in the area.
“Gas prices hit $4 a gallon last year and will go up again,” he said. “If we can make it so that commuter rail is faster and cheaper and you won’t have to pay to park your car, then people will definitely ride.”
The Detroit Department of Transportation predicts 20,000 daily riders on the Woodward line by 2030, with 11,100 roundtrips per day. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) estimates 5,800 daily riders for the Ann Arbor-Detroit line, with four round trips daily.
Rep. Bert Johnson, D-Detroit, whose district includes part of the proposed Woodward Avenue rail route, said it’s important for both projects to become a reality. “They are separate plans, but they show regional cooperation,”
Businesses would move close to the rail routes and the region would be, “more attractive to live, work, and play,” he said.
Carmine Palombo, director of transportation planning for SEMCOG, the group overseeing the Ann Arbor-Detroit proposal, said the plans go together well.
“The tie to Detroit Metro Airport, to New Center and the Woodward rail are all webbed together. They have the potential to create both employment and business opportunities,” he said.
According to Palombo, the Ann Arbor-Detroit route includes 103 retail outlets, the 10 largest cities in the Ann Arbor-Detroit region and Metro Airport.
As the Woodward project moves forward, Johnson said his initial focus will be to ensure that Detroit residents can benefit from the rail system.
“The first thing is to move people to job and education opportunities,” he said. “We’ll also see people from outside the area spending money, which increases revenue and allows us to do more, but our first obligation has to be to the city and then branching out.”
Palombo said both projects can help suburban and Detroit residents equally. “These plans show progress for the whole region. You have one end in the city and the other in the suburbs, so everyone can benefit.”
Both projects are seeking funding. The Ann Arbor-Detroit project will cost about $520 million to build.
There are two potential plans for the Woodward project. The first, a 3.5 mile line to New Center, is expected to cost $120 million to build. The second plan is a roughly 9.5 mile route costing more than $350 million.
Palombo said SEMCOG is trying to finance the program from many sources.
“We’re doing whatever it takes, be it state, federal, local or private funding,” he said.
The state Transportation Department is seeking federal stimulus money, but Palombo said he isn’t sure if light rail will receive any of that funding.
“Michigan applied for over $800 million in federal stimulus dollars, and we’re still waiting to hear which projects will be funded,” he said.
Johnson said he and other legislators, including Sen. Jason Allen, R-Traverse City, have secured $8 million toward the Woodward project, which is more than halfway toward its initial $120 million funding goal.
“We’ve got it done at the state level and now we’re trying to secure federal funding,” he said.
Allen said light rail could help Detroit economically.
“It will save citizens money, it will attract new businesses to the area, and it will have a positive effect on the environment,” he said.
Allen is also pushing for future light rail systems across the state that could go stretch north to Traverse City.
Steudle said such an ambitious plan is possible.
“It’s about an eight hour train ride to go from Ann Arbor to Traverse City right now, but if we could get it down to four hours, then I think people would ride,” he said.
Advocates say the Ann Arbor-Detroit line could begin operation by the end of 2010 and the Woodward line could begin construction by 2011, although construction has yet to begin on either project.
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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