U.S. approves first stage of Woodward light rail plan; project is on track

Posted on September 2, 2011

Detroit today reached another milestone on its quest for a light rail line on Woodward Avenue, with the Federal Transit Administration signaling its approval of the first stage of the city’s plans.

The FTA posted its Record of Decision supporting the city’s assessment of the environmental impact of the proposed rail line, a crucial early step in the process of planning and building a 19-stop route on Woodward from downtown to 8 Mile Road. The documents are posted on the Federal Transit Administration’s Web site.

The FTA’s decision is not a guarantee of federal funding. The city will need to win more than $300 million in federal grants in the coming years to build the line. But advocates said the FTA’s approval shows Detroit is on track to ultimately garner more federal money to build the $550-million Woodward Light Rail line envisioned as a catalyst for redevelopment in Detroit and improved regional transit.

“I would say it’s moving us from an 80% likelihood to a 90% likelihood that this is going to happen,” said Megan Owens, executive director of Transit Riders United, a Detroit-based advocacy group.

Still, there’s much work ahead.

The City Council has yet to approve an authority that would manage the design and construction of the rail line. Several council members have balked at Mayor Dave Bing’s proposal for an authority, saying it puts too much control in Bing’s office.

In addition, Bing has been meeting privately with members of M-1 Rail, a group of civic, business and philanthropic leaders that has pledged about $100 million in seed money for the project, to iron out disagreements about the city’s plans for the rail line.

The Woodward project is designed to be the first leg of a regional transit network that supporters say will have to be funded through a tri-county transit tax. Such a move might ultimately require merging the city and suburban bus systems and setting up regional management of transit, a goal that has eluded metro Detroit for decades.

By Matt Helms,