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Light rail comes to Detroit: U.S. Department of Transportation makes a $25M grant, putting M-1 Rail in motion

General Foundation News

At a celebratory press conference, leaders from the private, public and philanthropic sectors cheer the federal grant and the local and state-level efforts that preceded it.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a $25 million federal grant on Friday that – along with nearly $100 million in private commitments – puts Detroit’s long-awaited M-1 Rail on track to break ground this summer and begin operation in 2015.

LaHood made his announcement at Wayne State University’s Welcome Center, which faces Woodward Avenue, the city’s central corridor and M-1’s proposed route. In the predictions of the political, business and philanthropic leaders who shared the stage with LaHood, the rail line – from near the foot of Woodward downtown to Grand Boulevard in the New Center area — will transform the city and the region.

At a glance
  • Route: 3.3-miles streetcar route along Detroit’s Woodward Avenue from Congress Street to Grand Boulevard
  • Number of stations: 11
  • Station amenities: will be wheelchair-accessible, fully lit and with closed circuit security system
  • Service: Cars will run every seven to eight minutes in peak hours and 12 to 13 minutes in off hours; one-way trip about 16 minutes.
  • Cost: $137 million; funding to date: $25 million federal grant, $16 million in anticipated tax credits; $91 million in corporate, institutional and philanthropic sources including $35.1 million from Kresge.
  • Construction: To begin by summer; fully operational by late 2015.
  • Jobs: 2,000 new construction jobs; additional 20,000 jobs predicted when a full regional transit system is in place.
  • Other participants: Detroit Downtown Development Authority, Ford Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Bank of America, Chevrolet Division of General Motors, Chrysler, Compuware, Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System, Ilitch Holdings, Penske Corporation, Quicken Loans, Wayne County and Wayne State University.

“This is going to be in the history books,” said LaHood, on his 13th visit to the city, with the M-1 project a major factor in those visits. “No other city in America has had their business community come together and raise $100 million,” he said.

That $100 million includes $35.1 million from The Kresge Foundation, which helped bring together the private, public and philanthropic consortium that celebrated victory on Friday. LaHood’s announcement followed five years of ups and downs, including a setback in late 2011 that threatened to end the rail plan. Supporters pressed ahead, ultimately making a strong enough case to win LaHood’s approval.

Officials joining LaHood for the announcement included Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, U.S. senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and U.S. representatives Gary Peters, John Dingell and Sander Levin. Kresge President Rip Rapson and Detroit business leader Roger Penske also addressed journalists and community members at the event, lauding the broad philanthropic, government and private-interest coalition.

“We’ve seen this kind of transportation system transform city after city in the United States,” said Rapson. “Think Portland, Denver and Houston. There is no reason in the world that Detroit cannot use its light rail system as the very same kind of accelerator for future prosperity, future transit options and accelerated investments and development.” (Read Rapson’s remarks from the event.)

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said the light rail shows “the power of everyone working together. … We’ve reached this point only because of cooperation.”

With a full regional transit system in place, the city of Detroit expects to attract or generate 25,000 new downtown residents; 200-plus new storefront businesses along Woodward Avenue; 20,000-plus new jobs and the kind of street life and public spaces the city has been striving to create for at least a generation.

LaHood also announced $6 million in federal support for the studies and engineering for a regional transportation system as envisioned under the regional transportation authority for southeast Michigan recently authorized by Michigan’s state Legislature.

That authority will ultimately require a public vote. Earlier this week in his State of the State message, Snyder announced that Paul Hillegonds, a senior vice president of DTE Energy and a member of Kresge’s board of trustees, will head of the authority.

A successful referendum means that “We will be back with announcements on how to fund buses, bus lanes, facilities for these buses,” LaHood said. “You will have a state-of-the-art transportation authority, right here.”

Detroit, with its separate city and suburban bus systems, has long had the distinction of being the only major U.S. city without a unified regional transportation system. The recent creation of the regional transportation authority, Snyder said, was the 24th attempt in 40 years.

“More than just being a great project for our area is how this great project came about and the partnership,” said Snyder. “It really shows what can happen when Michiganders come together. It really brings all the sectors together of our economy.”

The M-1 Rail project dovetails with the Detroit Future City framework announced last week. That framework identifies assets that the community can build on and highlights opportunities for creating jobs, fostering economic growth and ensuring vibrant, healthy neighborhoods.

For the foreseeable future, Kresge’s grantmaking and investments in Detroit will be targeted toward bringing to life the innovations and ideas in this strategic framework. That represents some $150 million over the next five years.

Kresge’s Board of Trustees approved the $35.1 million grant for the rail system in 2009.  Meant to stimulate development, density and employment in Detroit, and promote further investment in regional mass transit, the grant is part of a comprehensive approach to creating economic opportunity in Kresge’s hometown.

A national philanthropy, Kresge has deep roots in the community where founder Sebastian Kresge made his home. (Learn more about Kresge’s Detroit Program.)

(See a Detroit News video of what U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and others had to say.)