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Lawmakers Respond To End Of Detroit Light Rail Plan

Mayor Dave Bing has asked the federal government if it can use divert funds from light rail to an express bus system. Transit supporters in Detroit and Lansing are stunned. Chances are slim that a rail line in Woodward will be built anytime soon. Michigan Now's Chris McCarus reports from the capitol. SOQ

Dennis Schornack is Governor Snyder's point man on transit in Southeast Michigan. He's promoting a bus rapid transit system that would run along Woodward, Gratiot, Grand River, Michigan and M59. Buses have their own lanes that cars can't veer into. Arrivals and departures can be tracked on clocks inside bus stations.

"They're more sophisticated than a bus. They have wifi capability. They are very comfortable vehicles that move at the same speed as light rail at much less cost. For example, for the proposed Woodward light rail system, for the same price you can deliver a 110 mile system that reaches 4 counties and 4.2 million people."

The titans of Detroit business had pledged to spend $100 million of their own money for the light rail line from downtown to 8 Mile. It would cost about $600 million. Light rail could trigger investment in housing, stores and restaurants. It's been touted more as an economic development tool. On November 7, Dennis Schornack held a meeting with Mayor Bing and the leaders of all 4 surrounding counties. They all agreed to bus rapid transit. But they didn't all know that the light rail plan would be dropped. Schornack says that was Bing’s idea. As for the state?

"So no we're not rejecting anything. We're just saying that it can be accommodated by this flexible system."

Flexible in that light rail could be added later. But private investors, te cit and the federal government already had the rail money lined up. And according to Edson Tennyson, a former Pennsylvania transportation official, light rail is about 20% cheaper to operate than bus rapid transit. State Senator Coleman Young is surprised.

"You know I just what the conversation was between the governor and the mayor when they went up there to Washington to talk about this to say they were going to nix it for buses. I mean you know. What is that all about. I felt that was real sad because it's something the City of Detroit wanted for a long time."

This year, funding and service for city and suburban bus service nose dived. Federal officials wanted to see a solid bus system before funding light rail. So transit czar Dennis Schornack is moving ahead with plans to create a regional transit authority. The RTA would have 10 members split between Detroit and 4 counties. Schornack says their job will be...

"To specify exactly what services people will be paying for. Because people don't vote to tax themselves if they don't know what they're buying. They have to understand what they're buying and what value it will deliver to them and then have the opportunity to say yes I will help pay for it or no I won't."

The regional transit authority bills will be introduced in the state senate transportation committee in January. The last light rail lines were torn from Detroit streets in 1956. It appears they won't come back for at least a few more years.