August 6, 2014 at 2:32 pm

M-1 faces tough competition in federal grant process

Work on the long-anticipated M-1 Rail streetcar line began on July 28. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Washington — Detroit’s M-1 light rail streetcar system is facing tough competition in seeking a new $12.2 million federal grant.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at an online town hall meeting Wednesday the administration plans to award $600 million in TIGER grants in mid-September, but noted the department has received 800 applications from around the country seeking $9.5 billion.

“It’s a very difficult process of picking some great projects and even turning down great projects,” Foxx said, adding it shows the tremendous need for infrastructure improvements.

TIGER is a federally funded discretionary grant program called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. It enables the transportation department “to invest in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve critical national objectives,” according to its website.

Foxx told The Detroit News last month the department is reviewing Detroit’s request for an additional $12.2 million for the planned 3.3 mile M-1 Rail streetcar project, declining to offer any assessment on the grant’s chances of success.

In May, six Michigan members of Congress wrote Foxx along with top White House aides in support of the city of Detroit’s request for a new award for the $137 million project that had a bigger deficit than previously disclosed.

In an interview last week, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she thinks the project has a strong chance of winning the grant. She’s spoken to Foxx on behalf of the project along with other administration officials including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

Foxx noted the Obama administration approved $25 million for the project in January 2013.

“We’re heavily invested in Detroit, and we care about what happens there so we’ll have to see (what happens with the grant request),” Foxx said.

Michigan members of Congress had told Foxx in May that a failure to receive the additional grant could result in the M-1 project being “delayed indefinitely.”

But M-1 announced it will proceed with the project and it broke ground July 28. CEO Matt Cullen said if the project fails to get the additional federal funds, M-1 will take other steps, including potentially revising the project to reduce costs. He said the project’s future would not be affected by a failure to receive the money and noted the board voted in early June to move forward with the project.

“We said to Secretary Foxx, ‘Look, we need some help,’ ” Cullen said last month, emphasizing it would be extremely difficult to go out and raise additional operating money.

The M-1 project is expected to be completed by late 2016 and will travel north and south on Woodward Avenue between Larned Street and West Grand Boulevard.

Foxx made a big push for members of the public to pressure Congress to pass long-term transportation funding after lawmakers approved the body’s 28th short-term funding bill over the past five years, extending road repair and other transportation fixes through May.

In April, Foxx unveiled a four-year, $302 billion surface transportation bill that would use revenue from corporate tax reform rather than higher gas taxes. It would provide an additional $87 billion to fix bridges and transit systems. In the months that followed, Congress decided it didn’t have time to find a long-term fix.
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