Note: this post is the first in a new subject for Great Lakes Law – Detroit. Of course my adopted city has its share of challenges, but they’re neither as severe nor as unique as the national media suggests. Detroit is on the frontline of a very difficult transformation within the Midwest and urban America from the twentieth century to the twenty-first. Detroit leaders and citizens are beginning to embrace the vague concepts of “green” and “sustainable” as a path towards a new future for the city. Renewable energy manufacturing, riverfront restoration, modern transit, and electric cars are essential to the future success of Motown. This is widely known, but often the national and regional media don’t report on the exciting progress that the city is making on these fronts.
Why include this on a blog devoted to Great Lakes water law and policy? Detroit and other Midwestern cities have a relative abundance of freshwater, are important stewards of the lakes, and their economic and social vitality is essential to refocusing development and investment in places where water supplies are sufficient to meet demand. Plus, if you like challenging environmental policy problems, Detroit is a great lab for testing new ideas. It’s also a pretty cool city, and could use a good word from time to time.
The Michigan legislature has passed, and Governor Granholm has signed, a series of laws that will allow a privately-funded light rail project in Detroit’s central corridor to quickly move forward. For several years, civic and business leaders have been developing and raising the funds for a light rail down historic Woodward Avenue, running over 3 miles from downtown Detroit’s Hart Plaza to the New Center. The project, called The Regional Area Initial Link (“TRAIL”), is chaired by civic leader Roger Penske and has appointed Matt Cullen, president and COO of Rock Ventures, as volunteer interim CEO. The Woodward light rail would be the first modern commuter rail project in Detroit. It would connect some of Detroit’s most popular destinations and neighborhoods, including the vibrant downtown business center, the Ford Field/Comerica Park stadium area, the Detroit Medical Center, the Detroit Institute of Arts and other world-class museums, and Wayne State University. It would also include a stop at the current Amtrak station, which will allow connections to future rail projects including the Ann Arbor – Detroit regional train.
It’s noteworthy that in this time of bailouts and government stimulus spending, the Detroit light rail project is being privately funded through the businesses and institutions that anchor Woodward Avenue. I’m proud that Wayne State University has scrapped up a significant contribution for this important project, even in tough economic times. Detroit’s business community and civic leaders, which have gotten more than their share of bad press lately, deserve a ton of credit. It’s a bold and effective way to revitalize the city with sustainable transportation. For more details on the project and its leaders, see this background article from Crain’s Detroit Business.
The new laws are Public Acts 481-488 of 2008, available on the Michigan legislature website. The laws allow the creation of nonprofit entities to build and operate rail lines and stations on state-owned right-of-way. The Michigan Department of Transportation can establish a “transit development finance zone” to capture tax revenue from the growth in property values to help fund the railway system under an agreement with the city in which the line is located. It’s a very creative and pragmatic model for funding and building new transit that transcends many of the typical political objections to public transportation.