There’s a Light at the End of the Tunnel and it Just May be a Trolley.

From the mid-1860s to 1956 Detroiters were able to move about town -“ and out to the ever-expanding suburbs -“ via some sort of vehicle on rails. “I was a kid when my parents took me on the last streetcar to run a regular route in Detroit,” says John Hertel, now the head of Southeastern Michigan’s Regional Transit Coordinating Council.

John Hertel, CEO of the Regional Transportation Coordinating Council.

Hertel’s grandmother had benefitted from what was once considered one of the largest, and most coordinated, mass transit systems in the country. “She worked as a seamstress in Grosse Pointe,” her grandson explains. “but she could easily go home on weekends to her family in the Thumb, quickly and inexpensively, just by boarding ‘the Rapid.'” This was part of the Detroit Urban Railway system that ran electrically-powered cars that looked like Detroit streetcars, but carried mail and freight as well as passengers between Port Huron, Toledo, Saginaw, Battle Creek and Grand Rapids to and from Detroit.

Now, in the midst of the economy and with another gasoline crisis less than an additional dollar a gallon away, Hertel is hoping to, in effect, bring Southeastern Michigan back to the glory days of mass transit that existed in the early part of the 20th century.

It’s a daunting task. “In President Gerald Ford’s administration,” Hertel says, “the Detroit region was offered $800 million to build a regional system -“ and that was when $800 million was real money -“ but we couldn’t access the money then because city and suburban leaders couldn’t reach agreement on how to spend it. Under President Carter we were also offered hundreds of millions and again we couldn’t reach agreement on how to spend it.”

Of the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the country 28 have operating mass transit systems, many long standing, but some recently installed, and the 29th (Phoenix) is just completing theirs. The Detroit area effectively has nothing in the way of a regional mass transportation system.

That may, finally, be changing.

Three Detroit streetcars show the vitality of mass transit in the 1920s.

It took until 2006 for the Detroit-area’s “Big Four,” the county executives of Oakland and Wayne counties, the head of Macomb County’s board of commissioners and the mayor of Detroit, to reach agreement on the need for an area-wide approach to mass transit. “They created a planning process -“ that’s when I got hired,” Hertel explains. “They voted unanimously to create that planning process and that’s a key point, they voted unanimously. All of the decisions made by this office have to be agreed to by all of the leadership.”

There have been numerous plans for mass transit in the past, but most have concentrated on limited solutions rather than the holistic one that was unveiled by Hertel on Dec. 8, 2008. “It has 406 miles of rapid transit, a phased-in 25 year build-up procedure that is scheduled to start in 2011. It has a price tag of $4.8 billion. We also got legislation passed in Lansing that calls for an operating authority to run the first portion of the plan, a 3.4 mile stretch of light rail running from Hart Plaza to New Center that’s being financed initially by private money.”

Two interurban cars pause for a photo in the Jackson, Mich. station.

That’s what is now being called “M1Rail,” reflecting its route up Woodward Avenue which is also Michigan highway 1. The story of M1Rail will be covered in more detail in a subsequent article. It is considered to be the linchpin of the entire system as Hertel explains it, because it should be started by the end of this year and be operational by the end of 2010.

How a regional mass transit system will look in 25 years.

“The legislation passed last December,” Hertel continues, “will cover the difference between what the M1Rail program takes in at the farebox and what it actually costs to run it. That’s a real change in direction from what we’ve had before.” All mass transit programs, even the most successful ones, rely on some sort of governmental subsidy. Some regions consider their mass transit system so vital to their economy that they charge no fare at all. Of the ones that do, the very best collect only 40 percent at the farebox compared to what it costs to run the system.

A further complicating factor is the number of governmental bodies involved in the three counties that constitute the core of Southeast Michigan. “We have 132 communities here in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties,” Hertel points out. “In Denver, where they have recently completed a system very similar to what we have planned, they have only 31 communities in five counties. We have a very different circumstance.”

Bus stops can range from secure, solar-powered versions such as this one in Cleveland...

Two major steps need to be taken to make the new regional system actually happen. “We need to create a regional transit authority to build and operate the regional system,” Hertel explains. “Once that’s created, we have to have a regional money supply. Currently, Detroit area residents pay much less than what people in the other major metropolitan areas pay for their mass transit systems -“ less than $75 per capita as opposed to an average of $184 per capita. If you’re going to access federal money,” he continues, “you have to have a dependable source of local money to match it -“ no local matching dollars, no federal dollars. So, like Denver, where they have a regional sales tax, we’re going to have to come up with some method to raise the local matching funds so that we can access the federal dollars needed to build the 406 mile system.”

-¦ to this Bus Rapid Transit station, complete with interactive information and ticketing kiosk.

The first step, though, is to create the regional mass transit authority. “The regional leaders have to decide the basic structure of that authority,” Hertel says. “They have to decide how many people will be on it, how they will be appointed or elected, what kind of vote -“ unanimous as now or a simple majority -“ will be necessary to make progress. All those steps have to be decoded before we even get to how we’re going to raise the money.”

“Whatever the ‘big four’ decide,” continues Hertel, “will have to be taken to the legislature to enact enabling legislation. The lack of that legislation is what killed the previous attempt to get a regional mass transit program off the ground.”

A light rail vehicle approaches a stop in Houston, Texas. The proposed M1Rail vehicles might look like this.

What does the proposed new system look like? “It’s a mixture of various forms of transit,” says Hertel. “To begin with, we propose scrapping the existing bus systems and creating one unified bus system, with new hybrid buses. Initially there would be more buses running, on more routes, more often. These buses would then connect with the M1Rail line running on Woodward.” The other major arteries -“ like Michigan and Gratiot -“ would have what is called Bus Rapid Transit or BRT.

What’s different about BRT? “There would be a dedicated lane for longer, articulated buses that would operate at sustained speeds because they would electronically control the traffic lights,” Hertel explains. “They would have specific stations which would be much more capable of providing customer services, such as electronic information systems with accurate next-bus notification, than simple bus stops. Some might even have restroom facilities. Fares would be collected before getting on the bus, as they are with most modern systems, via some sort of pre-paid card which would speed up the loading process. In any case, you get close to the type of service you would get from light rail for one-third the cost.”

By 2012 the Southeast Michigan mass transit program should look like this if all goes well. New hybrid buses will travel on main arterial roads while a new rail commuter line connects Ann Arbor, Metro Airport and Detroit’s New Center.

Hertel continued, “This BRT system on the mile roads and other major streets would act as feeders not only to the light rail line, but to BRT lines on the major thoroughfares and to the commuter rail line that will run between Ann Arbor and New Center. All of this could be implemented very quickly. And if we get the light rail line into New Center, that would provide us access to $50 million of federal money to enable us to build the additional tracks necessary to improve the service.” Right now the Amtrak passenger service that runs from Pontiac to Chicago shares the right-of-way with freight trains -“ which can often slow things down considerably.

Based on the history of mass transit efforts in the region over the past few decades, Hertel takes nothing for granted. “If,” he says again, “the light rail works on the 3.4 miles then it will enhance the possibility of the next phase being approved by the federal government. But, included in that enhancement, we will have to provide the wherewithal of the local matching dollars. Those 29 metropolitan areas that are ahead of us that I mentioned earlier? They have been using our tax dollars to build their mass transit systems. Places like Kenosha, Wisconsin and Little Rock, Arkansas have light rail. We’ve been a donor state for mass transit for a long time. We’ve been given the opportunity before, but we’ve never been able to agree on how to access that money -“ our money, or we’ve never even, in any way, been required to make a sacrifice here. To run DDOT or SMART our citizens are paying 25 cents while in other parts of the country their citizens are paying a dollar. And we’re getting a system that’s one-fourth or less as good. We’re getting what we’re paying for.”

The M1Rail program is thought by some suburban legislators as a “nice thing for Detroit, maybe,” but wonder what good does it do for their constituents. “The 3.4 miles of light rail line along Woodward,” answers Hertel, “will cover almost every major attraction or work destination in the downtown area. From the riverfront, through Fox Town and Comerica Park and Ford Field to the museums and the Detroit Medical Center, to New Center -“ those are the destinations for people who live, work and visit here. We’re planning on it acting, as it did in Denver, as a major ‘cool factor’ in addition to its utility as a transportation service. If it gets people saying ‘I want that’ then things will really begin to click. It needs to generate the political will for the rest of the system to happen. But first it has to happen, it has to be seen.”

Another factor to consider is the impact both construction and operation of a mass transit system will have on the region’s workforce. Ken Mall, Business Unit Leader at EDSI headquartered in Dearborn, Mich., says that there are opportunities for a number of types of employees. Mall, who has provided consulting services to a number of transit organizations throughout the U.S., says that he anticipates at least a 20 percent growth over the existing workforce employed by present transit providers in the area once the entire system is in place.

“There will be many different types of jobs than exist currently,” Mall says. “Initially, there will be the construction of the M1Rail line and the related infrastructure improvements that will be made. Even then there will be new requirements. There is a very different skillset involved, for instance, in working on the 750 volt power supply required to run the trains and that’s just one example. There will be different skills required to maintain a hybrid bus fleet. Computer programmers will be needed to provide command and control of the regional system. Even for the operators of the trains there will be a variety of skills that they will have to learn, especially if they’ve been operating buses up to now.”

There is also a major beneficial economic factor related to mass transit throughout the area, not just along the Woodward Avenue light rail line. “All across this country,” says Hertel, “the clearest, most compelling evidence to do this is that for the last 20 years for every $1 invested in mass transit there has been a related investment by the private sector of $8, particularly along the routes of dedicated transit service such as the light rail and BRT systems. Let’s say we only do half as well as everybody else and there’s only $4 invested by the private sector. Where else,” he asks, “are you going to get as good a return on your tax dollars as a 4 to 1 match?”

We’ll put our money on Hertel.