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Kresge remains committed to light rail project on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue

General Foundation News

Light rail and bus rapid transit can work together to revitalize the urban core and improve regional transit. Rip Rapson, the president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, today issued a statement formally responding to this week’s announcement that a long-planned light rail project in Detroit would be abandoned in favor of a regional bus rapid transit system. The foundation is part of the private funding group that initiated the rail project. Members of that group, M1 Rail, together pledged almost $100 million. Kresge’s commitment is $35 million.

TROY, Mich. – In March 2009, The Kresge Foundation Board of Trustees approved an unprecedented $35 million grant toward the construction of a 3.4-mile, fixed rail system in the Woodward Avenue corridor of Detroit to connect people from Detroit’s riverfront to the Midtown and New Center districts to the north.

There was clearly risk associated with a project of this scale and scope. We were willing to take the risk because we believed that Detroit needed this catalytic investment to restore its standing as a world-class city.

We expected that this line would stimulate private investment, prompt businesses and jobs to relocate in the heart of Detroit, retain and attract residents seeking an urban lifestyle, strengthen the city and add to its vibrancy and long-term economic prosperity. Those expectations are today being met. Over the past three years, the mere prospect of a light rail line has:

  • Propelled the development of hundreds of millions of dollars in new real estate projects up and down the avenue.
  • Fueled decisions by large employers to move to or expand their investment and footprint in the city.
  • Given rise to midtown and downtown housing incentive programs.
  • Attracted in excess of $100 million in new grant and loan commitments by national foundations and financial institutions.
  • And stoked excitement and hope among Detroit residents for a different future in neighborhoods long passed over by market forces.

This past Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing shared with residents of the region their plan to create a Regional Transit Authority for southeast Michigan and establish a Bus Rapid Transit system on major corridors in metropolitan Detroit’s tri-county area.

That vision assumed the community needed to abandon the light rail project that has been years in the making.

We share the desire of our elected leaders to create new funding mechanisms for transportation and improve transportation options for Detroiters and their suburban neighbors through an interconnecting web of bus rapid transit routes. We believe firmly, however, that light rail – through Detroit’s premier commercial, medical, educational and cultural corridor from the riverfront to city’s New Center district – should still stand as the heart of that system.

This is not about either bus rapid transit or light rail, but instead about how one can nest within the other. The Woodward light rail project was designed to complement a regional Bus Rapid Transit by supporting a revitalized, livable, walkable, vibrant downtown. The question is whether we can build, operate, and financially support a light rail system in a way that strengthens the regional system envisioned by the governor.

The conversation of the last week has summarily concluded that that is not possible. The members of the M1 Rail board, which has overseen the private sector’s efforts to bring light rail to Woodward Avenue, do not share that view. Whether or not we are correct, we owe it to the residents of Detroit, and the region, to explore the question of feasibility and affordability with discipline and thoroughness.

Detroit is at a crossroads. These are excruciatingly difficult times for the city and surrounding region. We understand the need for near-term solutions to fiscal challenges and immediate infrastructure inadequacies. Near-term solutions are not sufficient, however. We must combine pragmatism with a forward-looking ambition and optimism about Detroit’s future.

We believe that light rail and bus rapid transit can be complementary solutions.

The M-1 Rail ambition has always been to create a highly effective stimulus to the Detroit economy through the construction of 3.4 miles of light rail through the region’s most active, iconic, and dynamic corridor. To that end, its investors have committed to contribute or raise at least $100 million to build the line. That investment does not have to displace a bus rapid transit system – indeed, it can strengthen it.

Light rail can be developed with the urgency needed in this moment of opportunity.

There is positive momentum in the development of the Woodward Avenue corridor and it must not be lost. A regional bus rapid transit plan will take time to implement – there is legislation to be enacted, referenda to be passed, routes to be designed, vetted, and built. While all that important and necessary work is being done, we can take the next steps in developing a light rail line that can maintain the momentum already at work in restoring markets and economic activity in Detroit.

Lower Woodward Light Rail will begin to demonstrate Detroit’s options for a multimodal transit system on par with the very best cities in the country.

Light rail will create a 21st century living and working environment in the heart of the Detroit. In city after city across America, light rail has attracted investment, contributed essential infrastructure for job development, served as a magnet for talent, and created environments in which people want to live. It will strengthen jobs, tourism, and recreational activity at the heart of our region. It will link residents, workers, and visitors to the new high speed rail line currently under development between Detroit, Ann Arbor and Chicago, and provide better local connections to hospitals, colleges, and cultural institutions in Detroit.

Gov. Snyder and Mayor Bing have done the region a great service by bringing to the table a bold vision for regional transit. Light rail, in combination with a broad suite of investments and programs that begin in the Woodward corridor and will spread to other areas of the city, completes this vision. It is an embodiment of the future form and function of Detroit.