Meet the coolest transit project in America: M-1 Rail

Detroit, the city that refuses to die, and the city that got America moving, has gotten a little well-deserved help with their new streetcar. Detroit is long-known as one of those cities where transit projects go to die, with countless different iterations of this same project reappearing every few years. To this point, it’s worth mentioning that the People Mover system (photographed extensively in my 2016 trip) was always envisioned as a “last mile” circulator once people get downtown on a larger transit network that hasn’t materialized until now.

I don’t really know if this project is the coolest transit project in America. I’ll say it’s pretty unlikely. M-1 Rail is a mere $125-180 million endeavor, which puts it firmly in the New Starts realm, while more established transit cities like Seattle are doing crazy things like capping an entire urban freeway, LA is doing subway extensions, Atlanta is developing a copy + paste model for air rights construction over MARTA stations, Minneapolis wants 75,000 downtown residents, and Dallas fully intends to protect its claim to the most light rail of any city. These cities don’t blink at spending billions – yet Detroit’s little $125 million project has been such a topic of controversy. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called it “The worst transit project in America.” It’s hard not to wonder if this is a cogent anti-streetcar argument or just thinly veiled annoyance that this city refuses to conform to the negative outside press. (I feel guilty even offering this up as click bait, but I still feel compelled to offer totally contrasting viewpoints.) If he can make such an unfounded claim, then surely I can counter that by calling it the coolest transit project in America. M-1 Rail brings out the best in transit projects and has a tremendous array of benefits to offer Detroit. In many ways, this small transit project is the little engine that could.

dettransit_mapBoiling M-1 Rail down to its lowest common denominator, this project is a very small but vitally important link that ties together a regional rail network that is finally coming together. M-1 Rail, spanning the Cass Corridor between downtown (served by the very cool and very retro People Mover) and New Center (where Amtrak’s Wolverine and SEMCOG’s commuter system cut through Detroit City), is a 3.3-mile link (red) between these two existing (blue) transit systems that don’t currently intersect.

Now, given that there are some interesting corridors in the rift left by these two systems, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to connect the closest points of these two disparate transit networks? Even without knowing much about Detroit and specifically the neighborhoods that lie between the two transit systems, it would seem to make sense within the regional context: By making that connection, rather than having three disparate transit systems, you now have a single whole network that serves the Detroit region.

b99329484z-1_20151130190435_000_gvcmn04b-1-0It so happens that besides the obvious slam dunk within the regional context, that the localized context further propels the case for M-1 Rail. Woodward Avenue, Michigan Highway #1, is America’s only urban national scenic byway. There are only 30 national scenic byways. Step aside Euclid Avenue (CLE), High Street (Cbus), Wash Ave (STL), Fifth and Forbes (Pitt), Vine Street (Cincy). Woodward Avenue is the granddaddy of all of the great urban main streets.

I have a lot of “crazy theories” one might say, and one of them is that you can usually go up to a tall vantage point and look out over a major city and either point out specific transit corridors, or what should be specific transit corridors. Go to the CN Tower and you can literally see the veins of high-rises that fan out across the city, most notably along Yonge Street, where towers rise up for a dozen or so miles from the low-rise scale of Toronto’s surrounding neighborhoods. In a city without rail, the same experiment is basically a quick-and-dirty method of studying prospective corridors. In Columbus, go to the Rhodes Tower observation floor, and even if you know nothing about Columbus you still can’t help but notice how the entire city literally rises up at High Street. Similarly with Detroit, go up to a tall building on Wayne State’s campus and then look out over the city. You will see the above view. If you were struggling with where to do transit three years ago, the above view would be somewhat illuminating.

The financing of M-1 Rail is the most interesting urban experiment I have ever seen. Detroit City is in fact kind of an outsider to this entire project. This project has been planned, approved, and implemented by a complex partnership between Detroit’s non-profit sector and the federal government, which literally “required an Act of Congress” to allow public-private partnerships to count as the local match required by FTA. It also leverages New Markets Tax Credits, which is the first time NMTC’s have ever invested in public transit, thanks to LISC, Great Lakes Capital, and others. Four foundations, including the Ford and Kresge foundations, also contributed millions. Detroit’s corporate community stepped up to the plate to buy naming rights at each station, contributing far more than a name is really worth.

The financial pieces (totaling $180 million) of this project are as follows, mostly in little $3 million chunks here and there:

  • Kresge Foundation – $49.6 million
  • FTA TIGER I grant – $25 million
  • FTA TIGER VI grant – $12.2 million
  • Quicken Loans – $10 million
  • State of Michigan – $10 million
  • Detroit Downtown Development Authority – $9 million
  • NMTC (LISC, Great Lakes Capital, etc) – $8 million
  • Penske Corp. – $7 million
  • MEDC – $7 million
  • Illitch Holdings (Little Caesar’s Pizza) – $6 million
  • Ford Foundation – $4 million
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan – $3 million
  • Chrysler Foundation – $3 million
  • Detroit Medical Center – $3 million
  • General Motors Co. – $3 million
  • Henry Ford Health System – $3 million
  • Wayne State University – $3 million
  • Wayne County – $3 million
  • Ford Motor Co. – $3 million
  • DTE Energy – $2.9 million in-kind
  • Compuware Corp. – $1.5 million
  • J.P. Morgan Chase – $1.5 million
  • Hudson-Webber Foundation $1 million
  • Bank of America Foundation – $300,000
  • Ford Motor Co. Fund – $100,000

Notice you won’t see “City of Detroit” anywhere on said list. Nor will you see “taxpayers of Detroit” on the list, in any way (through some taxing district, etc). I just think that this is amazing. At a minimum, it’s a testament that the Rust Belt community ethos is alive and well in Michigan, even after a community has broken down and weathered such a storm. 

At this point I must confess that I started out intending to just whip up another quick photo tour and press “publish.” While that is still forthcoming, I just can’t stress enough that with this transit project the devil is in the details. If you bother to look at these details, it really is the coolest transit project in America.

And it is becoming reality.

Progress as of January 2015:

Progress as of February 2016:

Which eventually will resemble these renderings:

So, if you like what you see, mark your calendars for sometime in 2017 when M-1 Rail leaves the station, revolutionizing how visitors (tourists and suburbanites alike) will experience Detroit City. It will be an experience that keeps people coming back and hopefully creates enough concentrated activity to rub off on the less-revitalized remainder of the city.

Rather than insist that every project solve every problem (zero-sum), M-1 Rail is worthy of our support and admiration as a singular solution in a city that collectively needs a lot of singular solutions. M-1 Rail doesn’t fix everything overnight; however, it does fill in the missing link, build on Detroit’s existing assets, connect the city to the broader region where most jobs have moved, and give the city something captivating to build on for the future.

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One thought on “Meet the coolest transit project in America: M-1 Rail

  1. Pingback: An Ode to the Blank Slate | Green Lake Blue City

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