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Streetcars help rebuild Motor City

Congress Street terminus showing inbound and outbound tracks coming together. Note the charging point just beyond the platform; there is no other overhead wiring at the terminus. Image credit: Vic Simons.

May 2017 saw the opening of a more unusual second-generation US streetcar service. The eighth new system in the last five years, not only is Detroit’s new urban core circulator largely privately-funded, but it also has the largest off-wire operation in the nation. More than 60% of the Woodward Avenue route currently operates away from any physical electrified connection, with aspirations for more if practical. The line has a number of charging stations to ensure the vehicle’s lithium-ion batteries maintain their charge.

The question as to why the 5km (3.1-mile) route has been developed with such a high percentage of private sector funding (around two-thirds) has a slightly more complicated answer that is rooted in the decline of a once-great industrial powerhouse and its proposed rebirth. The public sector, particularly the City of Detroit, could not agree where and how a new system should operate and the debate was raging during the city’s well-publicised bankruptcy in 2013 that left it unable to fund major projects of this kind.

Seeing the dire need for urban regeneration in a city ravaged by adverse economic conditions, a number of concerned private corporations took up the mantle in developing a rapid transit system to regenerate the Woodward Avenue corridor that runs through the heart of the city, linking various sporting, medical, educational and cultural facilities and the Amtrak station with the downtown area.

Led by the Penske Corporation – a giant transportation, logistics and motorsport concern that has its headquarters in Michigan  and a major facility in downtown Detroit – and the Kresge Foundation, a consortium of regional business leaders set up a non-profit vehicle to implement the line on a design-build-operate-maintain basis. Funding for the USD182m project has come from a mixture of sponsorship and Federal grants.

The birth of a giant

Detroit was founded in 1701 by French explorer and adventurer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (the famous car brand adopted his name in 1902) who set up a fort and trading post on the strategically important Detroit river link between Lakes Erie, St Clair and Huron; the river formed the eventual international boundary between the USA and Canada. In 1760 city governance passed to the British before coming under the United States in 1796 and Detroit was first incorporated in 1802, becoming a city in 1815.

Detroit was Michigan’s state capital for ten years before this was transferred to Lansing in 1847, although it remained a key agricultural centre and later a base for manufacturing towards the end of the 19th Century. With the coming of the automobile in the next few decades, the city was well-positioned to take advantage of a large number of skilled railroad workers and excellent transportation links, and three future manufacturing giants established plants in Detroit. Catering for the remarkable growth in private car ownership, nearly 300 000 were employed in 1950 and as the metropolis grew rapidly around the automotive industry it soon became known as Motor City.

Economic pressures from the early 1970s from increased international competition and a sharp rise in gasoline prices saw this growth decline and eventually go into reverse, with job cuts, downsizing and relocation of firms such as General Motors and Ford in the two decades leading towards the new millennium. Thus began the spiral of decline for this once-great city. Whole neighbourhoods were abandoned, with local infrastructure being left to rot and decay.

In 2010 then-Mayor Dave Bing announced a plan to knock down many of the vacant buildings in around a quarter of the city to compact the remaining population and “rightsize the city’s resources to reflect its smaller population” which had dropped by nearly two-thirds over the previous 60 years. From a peak of 1.86m in 1950 when the city held 29% percent of the state’s residents, today that figure is less than 7%. The surrounding Wayne County has a population of around 1.8 million and in addition to the railway tunnel, Detroit is linked to Canada across the Detroit River by means of the Ambassador road bridge and the Detroit – Windsor tunnel.

The rise and fall of transit

Horse-drawn streetcars first came to Detroit in 1863, but it was not until the turn of the new century that the system was electrified and operated as a single system across most of the city by the Detroit United Railway.

The unified system declined in popularity due largely to severe overcrowding in peak periods – despite the provision of high frequency services and trailers – and greater access to affordable private cars for thousands of automotive workers.

After a great deal of public debate, and a number of court cases, in 1922 the city took control through the Department of Street Railways and became the first in the US to operate its own streetcars. In 1925 the city began the operation of feeder buses as streetcar expansion had been deemed too expensive, but within ten years the impact of the car had firmly taken hold and the long decline began, culminating in the closure of the system in 1956. Interestingly, the Woodward Avenue route was the last to see conversion to the motor bus on 8 April that year.

Buses were adequately dealing with public transport needs in the 1970s and ’80s as urban populations declined, but by 2000 the situation had become serious and the city fathers drew up a plan for urban regeneration and revitalisation of the downtown core that saw streetcars as a key catalyst. Initial planning was as far as the proposals got, however there was no agreement as to the location and extent of the system, and how it was to be funded. The city had bigger issues and thus, the project stalled.

In July 2013 the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy with the biggest municipal debt in US history – around USD20bn. This agonising decision had wide-ranging ramifications that led to complex legal cases and in some instances jail time for public officials.

In light of the city’s dire position, concerned citizens felt the need to do their part; a further example that contributed to the streetcar cause had been the 2006 Superbowl – one of the largest events in world sport – when transport provision failed to deal with the large crowds.

In 2007, Roger S Penske, Chairman and CEO of Penske, Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson and Founder and Chairman of Quicken Loans Dan Gilbert, formed the not-for-profit M-1 Rail corporation to establish a streetcar line along Woodward Avenue, part of Michigan State Road 1, or M1. As part of the plan to reinvigorate the downtown core, in 2010 Quicken Loans moved its corporate headquarters to Woodward Avenue. After moving all 3600 Michigan-based staff into the city centre by the end of 2010, the company now has approximately 17 000 staff in Detroit, making it one of the city’s largest employers.

The streetcar plan was hampered by various setbacks, not least of which being the global economic downturn and the city’s bankruptcy. However, Penske, Gilbert and the other backers of M-1 Rail were persistent and eventually raised sufficient funding to give the project a basis for applying for Federal grants as it quickly became clear that the city could not provide any financial contribution. It was not just capital funding – ongoing revenue streams were required for day-to-day operations and maintenance. The largest single donor was the Kresge Foundation, whose CEO Rapson was a former Mayor of Minneapolis and had seen the positive impact of the Hiawatha light rail line there. The Kresge Foundation has made more than USD50m available to the project.

It took more than five years to convince the Federal Government that the project had adequate available capital, and another pre-condition was the creation of a local Regional Transportation Authority. The RTA in South East Michigan covers the four area counties, Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Macomb as well as the cities of Detroit and Ann Arbor and was created by the Michigan State legislature in 2012. This provided the means to apply for Federal grants.

A USD25m TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant was received in 2013, enabling the start of construction. URS Corp (now AECOM) acted as primary designer for the line, with Stacy & Witbeck appointed general contractor in 2013. Work began in July 2014.

The coming of the Streetcar

After considering a number of options, M-1 Rail decided on a route along Woodward Avenue from Grand Boulevard in North Detroit to a terminus at Congress Street just short of the Detroit River waterfront in the heart of Downtown. Apart from the downtown termination spur at Congress, the route is double-track throughout and the alignment is mostly gutter-running, unusual in the US, before moving across to the centre median for the last three of the 12 stations just short of Amsterdam.

Following the current US vogue for off-wire operation for urban circulators – in part led by the proven success of the domestically-made Liberty 70% low-floor car from Brookville Equipment Corporation – more than 60% of the alignment is independent of a fixed electrical connection. A number of charging points can be found along the 5km (3.1-mile) route, including at the Congress terminus and just beyond the northern terminus where it enters the car barn. The two-road car barn and administrative offices are in the new 1765m2 (19 000ft2) Penske Tech Center, two blocks north of the Grand Boulevard terminus.

The operation is now known as QLine following a ten-year USD5m Quicken Loans sponsorship deal announced in 2016, and each of the line’s 12 stops are assigned to one of the system’s financial backers, shown with individual pottery tile branding.

The route is entirely on Woodward Avenue aside from a downtown loop around Campus Martius Park, from Grand Boulevard to the terminus south of Congress Street. The route was chosen for its links to key traffic generators such as the city’s baseball and American football stadiums and to cultural destinations like the Detroit Opera House and a number of theatres. QLine estimates that there is a major sporting or cultural event on around 300 days a year within two blocks of the streetcar, which also connects with Amtrak rail services at the Baltimore Street Station, located on the corner of Woodward and West Baltimore Avenues in the New Center area.

QLine has contracted with Transdev to operate and maintain the system under an initial five-year contract worth USD15.5m that was signed in June 2016, with the option of up to five additional years. The stations are to the usual US urban streetcar specification with covered shelters, seating and timetables; ticket vending machines are located on each platform. Following a fare-free initial period that began on 12 May and ended on 5 September, the basic one-way fare is valid for three hours and costs USD1.50; a day ticket costs USD3. Reduced fares are available for students, senior citizens and those with mobility challenges alongside both monthly and annual passes. An additional USD0.25 is required for transfers to local bus routes and services are operated seven days a week.

The original intention of M-1 Rail was to procure vehicles from the Czech supplier Inekon, but when in 2014 this deal fell apart the company turned to Pennsylvania-based Brookville, which has supplied six 20m double-ended Liberty vehicles under a USD32m deal. Although visually similar to the cars operating in Dallas, TX, a key difference is the slighter wider carbody, now 2.6m compared to the 2.43m vehicles operating on the Oak Cliff and Bishop Arts service. Enhanced HVAC systems are also designed to cope with the more extreme winter conditions in Detroit. Five cars are required for normal service with a sixth available to deal with peak demand if required or as a spare.

The 70% low-floor three-section vehicles have capacity for 125 passengers (34 seated) and are fitted with four 99kW AC traction motors and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for catenary-free operation on around 60% of the route and a short spur into the depot. Although capable of speeds up to 55km/h (35mph), service speeds are considerably less. High-speed Wi-Fi is provided onboard the vehicles and at stops by Detroit-based startup Rocket Fiber.

As with all US urban streetcar installations, a significant boost to Transit Oriented Development has been linked to the new line either along or within two blocks of the alignment. QLine estimates that in excess of USD7bn in development is either under construction or planned, including new sports facilities for Detroit’s professional basketball and ice hockey teams.

The QLine board had always envisaged the new transit link as a kick-starter for further regional light rail development, although such a plan was narrowly rejected by voters in the November 2016 ballot. Now that both residents and businesses have seen the positive benefits, the RTA intends to go back to voters in November 2018 seeking approval for streetcar expansion.

The Detroit People Mover

The other piece of rail-based infrastructure in Detroit is the 4.7km (2.9 mile) 13-station automated Detroit People Mover (DPM) that operates on an elevated circular alignment around downtown. The service opened in 1987 and is operated by the Detroit Transportation Corporation under the auspices of SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) which also operates regional bus services across the area. The DPM operates on a single-track standard-gauge clockwise loop with many of the stations lying inside office blocks, meaning that its appeal is more limited, recording 2 165 352 riders in 2016.

The DPM is powered by linear induction motors that give a maximum operating speed of up to 90km/h (56mph) although in practice this speed is never reached. The 12-car UTDC-built fleet is made up into five two-car trains with two spare vehicles; each vehicle can accommodate 34 seated and 66 standing passengers and two wheelchairs. Service is provided seven days a week, extended until 02.00 on Friday and Saturday and with a later start on Sunday mornings. The fare is USD0.75.

M-1 Rail’s Chief Operating Officer Paul Childs told TAUT that he was both excited and proud of what has been achieved to date, adding that he believes the private sector has delivered the project more efficiently than the public sector could. He cited the delivery of the first streetcar in just 14 months from the placement of the order as just one example of the tight project management. This was helped by being able to ‘piggyback’ onto the Milwaukie streetcar order.

The public sector had to be involved for oversight and compliance, Childs adds, and the organisation lists ten public sector partners that were key to the collaborative approach throughout the project.

Childs explained that QLine actually spent more than USD280m, of which USD100m was refunded by the public sector in respect of bridge and road reconstruction as part of utility relocation. An unusual source of funding, Childs explained, was the use of New Market Tax Credits by the US Treasury to assist the private sector; this helped to generate the USD25m sinking fund for operating and maintenance costs.

Childs refers to the choice for overhead-free operation being as much a practical decision as an aesthetic one. With catenary costs being around USD2m/mile, the lithium-ion battery solution was much cheaper, he suggests. He is also full of praise for the preventative impact of CCTV inside the streetcars, important in a city that has a higher than average crime rate in the urban area. Providing real-time security due to their links with police and security companies, the cameras have minimised the impact of instances of crime or anti-social behaviour on the system.

Sowing seeds for the future

While the achievements in building such a streetcar system in such a relatively short period of time are impressive, the Transit Oriented Development is a key factor in the system’s overall success. Sadly, this is currently limited to within two or three blocks of the Woodward Avenue corridor and when the author drove around the wider area it is clear that there are whole city blocks lying overgrown and with signs of severe urban decay. These are still early days.

Detroit clearly has a long way to go in rebuilding itself to anywhere near its former glory, and this will require significant funding for improvement and regeneration, but with a shrinking tax base there is no clear methodology to generate such funds. Nevertheless, the streetcar is a key early sign of growth. It is interesting to note that ridership fell by 40% with the introduction of fares on 5 September 2017 – although this has since begun to recover. M1 Rail consider that ridership is in line with expectation.

As a starter line it is therefore a useful base and it is hoped that further connections can be made to the city’s primary bus terminal to promote further transit integration and serve events at the line’s major sporting venues.

Grateful thanks are due to Paul Childs and Lisa Ledbetter for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

Originally featured in December 2017 TAUT (960).