July 28, 2014 at 12:13 pm

M-1 Rail construction begins 'new day' in Detroit

Detroit— Organizers of the M-1 Rail streetcar Monday lauded the start of construction on the Woodward Avenue project as a “new day” for the city and region despite coming traffic delays and road closures for the next two years.

With cranes tearing up Woodward in the background, M-1 CEO and President Matt Cullen, Mayor Mike Duggan and business titan and M-1 backer Roger Penske told reporters gathered for a morning news conference that this project will bolster the city.

“It’s really a big day for us. It’s the beginning of this transformative project,” Cullen said. “We’ve been working hard on it for a long time. We’re going to move really quickly and safely through the entire construction process. We want to minimize the disruption and maximize the communication. We’ve had a very aggressive outreach plan already.”

Work on the long-anticipated M-1 Rail streetcar line began just after midnight in the city’s downtown as a large portion of Woodward Avenue was closed off Monday morning while workers began cutting concrete.

From Grand Circus Park to Campus Martius, orange construction barrels, metal barricades and fencing blocked off access to the roadway as workers wearing yellow reflective vests and white hard hats prepared to begin the first phase of the public transit project, which is expected to last four months.

At Woodward and Grand River, concrete-cutting machinery was rolled out while a bulldozer was parked just north of West Adams Monday.

Penske, who called the start of M-1 construction a “great day for the city of Detroit,” said this project has been seven years in the making. He and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert have been the major financial backers and proponents of the project.

“Two years from now, almost 24 months, you’ll see a rail car coming from New Center to Jefferson. Outstanding,” Penske said. “Think about what’s going to happen in the neighborhoods. We’ve been to other cities to see what happens when you put a rail line like this in. We had commerce around each individual station.”

Penske, who serves as the M-1 Board chairman, called the $137 million, 3.3-mile line project, which is expected to take two years and stretch from downtown to New Center, “unprecedented” given that both public and private money has been raised to fund it.

Duggan said history was made today because it’s been since 1956 that Detroit had a city rail system.

“We have not had light rail in this city for more than a half a century,” Duggan said. “And if you’re going to build true city with real density, you’ve got to have light rail. To be the mayor at the time of the groundbreaking is pretty exciting.”

Duggan recalled a conversation he had with Cullen and Penske seven years ago when he was CEO of the Detroit Medical Center and was asked by the two to put up $3 million to sponsor a rail station and that the system was going to be built out of private money.

“I thought these guys were crazy,” he said. “But they have stayed with it through a number of ups and downs. I can’t say thank you enough on behalf of the people of the city of Detroit.”

Commuters and business owners along the route are bracing for detours and disruption, but they say the inconvenience will pay off eventually — even with at times parts of Woodward and two interstate bridges being shut down and rebuilt.

For at least 120 days, Woodward between Adams Street near Grand Circus Park and Campus Martius will be closed to car traffic except for side streets through that corridor. Construction is expected between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, with some weekend work as well. Other work will commence in phases.

David Zainea, one of the owners of The Majestic entertainment complex that includes a pizzeria and bowling alley, expects some growing pains during construction over the next two years, but the region is expected to see an economic windfall from M-1.

“I think we’ve got to weather that storm. It’s going to certainly help the economy eventually when it’s done,” Zainea said. “But it definitely will inconvenience some businesses. There are going to be some hardships. But overall, I can’t wait. I think it’s going to help. It’s going to add more pedestrian life.”

M-1 organizers, who are planning a more formal and official groundbreaking Sept. 15 with financial backers and dignitaries, expect to finish the project on time at the end of 2016. Financial supporters, led by business leaders Penske and Gilbert, have invested and helped raise more $110 million in private money for the system.

When completed, the streetcar line will be the Motor City’s first major transportation breakthrough in decades. Transportation officials hope it will jump-start other projects in a region starved for transit options.

The construction will be done in zones and carefully coordinated in downtown, Midtown and the north end with the Michigan Department of Transportation and DTE, officials say.

As for the bridges, Interstates 75 and 94 will be closed during demolition on the weekends, although Woodward is expected to remain open during the bridge razings, officials said.

The southbound Woodward bridge over I-94 will be torn down in mid-August and the southbound bridge over I-75 will be demolished in September. Traffic will be shifted before each side of the bridge is torn down.

Once completed, the M-1 streetcar will trek up and down Woodward between Larned and West Grand Boulevard, with 20 stations at 12 locations. Six, 60-foot streetcars will serve the line.

Red Rose Florist, on Woodward between Grand River and John R, is in the heart of where the 120-day closure will take place. Its CEO and president, Stan Nelson, said the M-1 Rail will be a little disruptive at first, but worth the wait.

Nelson said he sits on a business advisory board for the streetcar system and believes that “the M-1 Rail will be only a plus and addition to the city that’s great anyway but that will become greater.”

To him, the rail project is an overdue improvement that’s needed to draw more customers for his shop and other businesses.

“Over the years we’ve been struggling to stay open, waiting on things to turn around,” Nelson said. “They say no pain, no gain, but preferably there’ll be gain. We’ve been looking for the businesses and people to come back. This is a beautiful city.”

Max Witzke, the manager of the Moosejaw clothing store right between the closure area of Campus Martius and Grand Circus Park, said “we’re keeping our spirits high” during the construction and still expects passersby to visit his shop.

“I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as what everyone thinks it’s going to be,” Witzke said. “We really thrive off of foot traffic. I think everyone’s going to be excited about the renovations. I think it’s going to be really good for the city, and anything that’s good for the city is good for us. It’s going to bring more people downtown.”

Staff writer Tony Briscoe contributed.
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Construction work begins Monday on Woodward Avenue in Detroit on the M-1 Rail streetcar line. / David Coates / The Detroit News
M-1 Rail board Chairman Roger Penske observes work being done Monday on ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)