Detroit’s much-discussed urban street car system, the M-1 Rail, is finally becoming a reality. Demolition and construction efforts began at the end of July, and the project is expected to be completed in November.
The nonprofit organization M-1 Rail formed in 2007 with a mission to design create and operate a streetcar along a track about three miles long. The streetcar will circulate along Woodward Avenue between Larned Street and West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, helping to connect commuters to the downtown area, the Riverfront, the New Center and North End neighborhoods.
“The paperwork for the nonprofit was formally processed in 2008, but conversations started as far back as 2005 and 2006 when the Superbowl was in town in 2006,” said Sommer Woods, director of external relations for M-1 Rail.
Woods said many people mistakenly believe that the plan for the rail has undergone a lot of changes, but she insists that the founders of M-1 Rail always envisioned the project being about three miles. However, in 2010, the city and other partners explored the idea of expanding the project to between eight and nine miles and going with a slightly different and faster technology called “light rail.”
She said that after some analysis, the Federal Transportation Authority, the city of Detroit and M-1 Rail didn’t feel the larger project was feasible, however. Plans were scaled back to be closer in line with M-1 Rail’s original idea of a 3.3-mile track.
“We believe we need to start somewhere in starting a bigger conversation about transportation in the southeast Michigan region,” Woods said.
The nonprofit partnered with the FTA, the State of Michigan, the City of Detroit, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and other stakeholders to explore capital and operation cost estimates and funding sources and develop organizational structures that would allow the private-public partnership to function.
“M-1 Rail has committed to build it and operate it for 10 years before it’s transferred to the city or to a transportation authority- whatever they decide at that time,” Woods said.
M-1 Rail also solicited public opinion on the project in several public forums.
“We had a series of meetings with community members and other stakeholders representing different focuses, including seniors and youth. We were also answering questions about workforce development, contracting, communication and construction,” Woods said.
Rides are projected to cost $1.50 for the average commuter. Woods said that is a tentative number based on the FTA’s analysis of average costs for public transportation around the country, and there will be discounts for seniors. Discounts may also apply to frequent rider packages and students.
Demolition work to prepare for construction started July 28 downtown. “Demolition, utilities, putting the rail in – that all should take about four months, or 120 days,” Woods said. “We’ll get done right before Thanksgiving.”
Woods said that she knows businesses affected by the construction are concerned about the impact on customers.
“Everyone understands there will be some short-term pain,” Woods said. “But they understand how, in the long-term, it will benefit them. A lot of businesses were very involved in meetings that we held throughout the corridor. We let them know to look at our website for the most updated traffic information. Right now, we’re making sure they have the information they need in order to conduct business through construction.”
Woods said that while M-1 Rail isn’t hiring anyone directly, the intention has always been to make it an inclusive project that will give local minority- and women-owned businesses a chance to bid on the work.
“We want to use Detroit-based businesses because they will have Detroiters working for their companies,” she said.
Woods said the one thing she really wanted the public to know is that the project will have an impact much bigger than the 3.3-mile track.
“We want to go further, but we have to start somewhere,” she said. “It’s about creating multiple modes of transportation. For instance, one guy who came to the community meetings commutes to Ann Arbor via Amtrak and he was excited to be able to take the streetcar to the Amtrak station. We’re so depending on cars in southeast Michigan, we often don’t think about other modes of transportation. I want people to understand the bigger picture, showing people that, here in Detroit, we can do transit and do it well, and that it’s an economic stimulus.”
For more information, visit http://m-1rail.com. To find construction maps and schedules and suggestions for alternate routes during construction, click the “Construction” tab at the top of the homepage.
Reporter: Sarah Rigg