Friday, December 3, 2010

003: Woodward Light Rail (Part 2)

In response to many of your comments regarding the proposed Woodward Light Rail and its failure to make it to the suburbs, I am positing this article written by Bonnie Caprara from The Oakland Press. In the article she highlights alternative and additive proposals for commuter rail and a more efficient and integrated bus system which would expand the regional public transportation system. Also, a very brief article by Bill Shea about Oakland County's response to the proposal to extend the light rail past 8 Mile to Royal Oak originally printed in Crain's Detroit Business.

The original articles with reader comments can be found here:
Light rail to 11 mile discussed
Patterson: No money, demand for light rail in Oakland County

Light rail to 11 mile discussed

John Swatosh, deputy director of the Regional Transit Coordinating Council (RTCC), is one of several people who would love to see light rail transit (LRT) on Woodward Avenue from downtown Detroit to 11 Mile Road.

However, he knows it’s going to take money, and light rail is only a small piece of how mass transportation could be improved in Southeast Michigan.

“Without a regional transportation authority and a regional transportation plan, this (light rail) will never happen,” Swatosh said.

Admittedly a hard sell in a tough economy, Swatosh updated about 40 people on the RTCC’s progress at a town hall meeting at the Royal Oak Public Library on Saturday, Sept. 12, which was sponsored by Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak.

“Detroit is the only city without a modern transportation system,” Donigan said. “Mass transit is something young people want and the young people coming here are demanding it.”

The roads and lines leading to light rail

Swatosh said that the first steps to improving mass transit in the region included combined communications between SMART, DDOT and the DTC, which operates downtown Detroit’s People Mover.

“We need a common phone number and signage, system integration and a regional system map, and do a better job of coordinating and integrating paratransit and community transit,” Swatosh said. “Currently, transit customers have to carry DDOT, DTC and SMART maps if they wish to use all of the systems.”

But in the future, it will take more than diesel buses to get commuters to their destinations and connect them to a light rail vehicle. The RTCC’s recommendations, to be implemented through 2035, include:

Arterial Rapid Transit (ART), which include hybrid low-floor buses with bike racks that would be given traffic signal priority, wide-stop spacing and enhanced shelters that provide better protection from the weather and route information. In Los Angeles, ART buses have cut commute times by 25 percent. In Oakland County, ART lines would run along Nine and 12 Mile roads.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) are buses that are longer than conventional buses, have multiple doors, drive in reserved lanes, run on alternative fuels and travel at speeds averaging 30 mph. In Oakland County, BRT lines would run on Eight Mile, Big Beaver, M-59, Greenfield, Telegraph, Grand River, Haggerty and Williams Lake. Currently, a BRT system is in place in Eugene, Ore.

An LRT line, which would run an electric streetcar or train type of vehicle at speeds up to 55 mph with stops every half mile to two miles. The RTCC is proposing a LRT line for Woodward that would run from Jefferson to Grand Boulevard by 2012 and extend to 11 Mile Road by 2016. LRT lines are currently in operation in Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Commuter rail, consisting of conventional commuter trains that ride on short, specific routes. An Ann Arbor-Detroit/New Center route is being proposed with stops in Ypsilanti, Detroit-Wayne County Metropolitan Airport, the Henry Ford and Dearborn with feeder bus routes leading to key employers, hospitals, schools and shopping centers. If successful, commuter rail lines could be extended to Pontiac, Port Huron and Monroe.

Rapid Transit (RT), or high-speed rail, which would link Detroit to Chicago. Although not formally part of the RTCC’s plans, the State of Michigan applied for $800 million in federal stimulus funds in August for this proposed project.

Mass transit lines would also have to be improved going to and from regional hubs at shopping centers and multimodal hubs, such as one being proposed for Royal Oak/Troy. These would be non-stop routes on 20-foot buses that would run every 15 minutes. Such hubs in Oakland County are proposed for Royal Oak, Oakland Mall and Northland Mall. Other hubs would be located at Lakeside and Macomb malls in Macomb County, and in downtown Detroit and Eastland, Fairlane Town and Southland centers in Wayne County.

Additional Park and Ride lots would be added but would require negotiations with local municipalities and the state to acquire land.

How to fund the system

The RTCC cannot implement or fund this plan. To do so would require a regional authority, which could do so pending an agreement by the leaders of Macomb Oakland, and Wayne counties and the City of Detroit and state legislative approval.

Currently, mass transit funding is inadequate to add any of these services in Southeast Michigan. According to Swatosh, the Detroit region only provides $75 per capita for mass transit funding while the contributions of the 24 other largest cities in the country provide about $185 per capita.

The capital costs for an ART system would run between $400,000 and $450,000 per mile with buses running between $500,000 and $600,000 each.
The capital costs for BRT would run between $9.1 million and $21 million with buses running between $1 million and $1.2 million each.

The capital cost of a modern streetcar version of a LRT system would cost between $16 million and $29 million per mile with cars running between $3 million and $3.5 million each. Installing the infrastructure for a train-style light rail system could run between $59 million and $69 million with trains costing $4 million to $5 million each.

“Currently, we’re working with a multi-agency project team to address these issues,” Swatosh said.

Carmine Palombo, the director of transportation for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), believes the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees would not adequately address funding needs.

“We’re seeing a decline in the gas tax with smaller vehicles on the road with less money going into the kitty, and vehicle registration fees are going down because less expensive vehicles are being purchased,” Palombo said. “Even raising the gas tax is not a good idea. It’s strictly a short-term solution until we decide what the strategy should be.”

“We could implement a half-cent to 1-cent regional sales tax,” said Megan Owens, director of Transportation Riders United (TRU).

SEMCOG is currently looking into federal stimulus funds that could start up the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail system. However, federal stimulus grants require local matching funds.

“SEMCOG is only a planning agency,” Palombo said. “We have no one running it and we have no money. MDOT (the Michigan Department of Transportation) has agreed to operate it for a period of time until an authority can be established. As for where we are getting the money to fund this service, we’re going to have to pass the hat for a while.”

“All of these things won’t come to pass until we convince the legislators and the public how this will improve the quality of life,” Palombo said.
Proponents of mass transit believe that while the costs are large, the returns on investments could be even bigger, possibly totaling $4 to $8 for each $1 invested in mass transit.

“The attitude of legislators and the public are that taxes are evil and need to be avoided at all costs,” Owens said. “It may take $500 million to put this in place, but if it brings $3 billion to $4 billion in economic benefits and 20,000 to 40,000 jobs, the benefits are huge.”

“We could also see job creation in Macomb and Oakland counties along the M-59 and Metropolitan Parkway/Big Beaver corridors,” Swatosh added. “People have been saying that east/west routes have been ignored. This plan addresses that.”

Owens believes that job creation along mass transit corridors could result in lower taxes.

“When Arlington, Va., expanded its Metro service to D.C., it put it on its main street, which focused on new development in that corridor,” Owens said. “As a result, Arlington County has a lower tax base because of the new activity.”

Owens also believes that even those who don’t use mass transit will see benefits.

“They’ll see decreased traffic on the highways,” Owens said.

“I believe people will pay for something they see has value,” Donigan said.

Patterson: No money, demand for light rail in Oakland County

Oakland County doesn't have the funding to qualify for federal transit funding, its longtime chief elected executive said.

“Nobody else has got a hundred million dollars lying around,” he said. “The state is almost bankrupt, and no county can compete with (what Detroit has raised).”

And now that regional transit czar John Hertel is instead running the suburban bus system, there is no point person orchestrating mass transit, especially for extending the Woodward line.

“I don't know who's going to carry the ball north of Eight Mile,” Patterson said, adding that he supports Detroit's effort to build a line in the city in anticipation of it garnering support from the suburbs after it's running.

Patterson's primary concern is cost and what he said is a lack of business case for a line on Woodward.

“You can run a light-rail line up every mile road, up Telegraph, up Woodward, Gratiot and Jefferson. I don't care. Crisscross the three counties; just tell me who is going to build it and pay to maintain and operate it,” he said.

He also doubts there's much demand for light rail in Oakland County.

“It's going to have to be sold to the taxpayers who will bear the brunt of the cost,” he said. “There's no public hue and cry for light rail to Eleven Mile. It's a luxury, not a necessity.”

Patterson agrees with Detroit that the regional transit legislation should be scrapped and replaced with something directly negotiated by the counties and city.

“The legislation pending in Lansing is a disaster,” Patterson said, calling it too pro-labor and filled with potential hidden costs for Oakland and Macomb counties.
The overpass carrying Woodward Avenue over Eight Mile Road memorializes commuter rail service from an earlier era.
Nathan Skid (Crain's Detroit Business)

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