Detroiter Patricia Willis waited patiently at the QLine Campus Marius stop after leaving work late Friday afternoon, ready to celebrate downtown’s latest milestone and get a ride home at the same time.
In her lifetime, the 64-year-old has seen downtown go from bustling city center to empty streets, only to see it resuscitated in recent years.
“Our downtown kind of disappeared,” said Willis, who lives off of I-375 and works at the Fox Theatre. “It came back a little slow, but Detroit always comes back.”
But when the new QLine streetcar pulled up to the stop, it was too full to even get on.
“They are pushed to the doors, noses on the window,” Willis said. “I’ll try tomorrow. It’s going to take time to let it sink in and really get used to it.”
Even late Friday night, space was tight and lines were long to catch the new streetcars on their first public launch.
From Lansing to Detroit came professionals, millennials and senior citizens. Dignitaries took seats on stage and children cuddled on parents’ laps.
The $140 million streetcar project was 10 years in the making, and it almost didn’t happen.
Ask Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, a primary backer of the streetcar system, who contributed more than $11 million to the project that stretches 3.3 miles along Woodward Avenue from Campus Martius to New Center.
“This QLine was declared to be dead more times than John Travolta’s career," he joked.
But Gilbert touched on the significance of all the key players coming together to make the private-public partnership happen.
“This has been an effort of Democrats, Republicans — well, we had one Republican speak today (Gov. Rick Snyder), for-profits and not-for profits,” he said. “We should probably get a Nobel Prize."
In addition to the governor, Mayor Mike Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson, M-1 Rail CEO Matt Cullen and others shared the stage with Gilbert.
And it was clear. Detroit's streetcar scene is alive again.
Aaron Markies, 32, walked only a few blocks with his three sons from his home near the Canfield stop Friday night and took the streetcar to Campus Martius. He predicted they’d take the QLine a couple times a week, when they want to get something to eat, see a show or hang out.
“We’ve got the trains now,” Markies said. “We have all the (sports) teams downtown. There should be a lot more business.”
Historians will record May 12, 2017, as the first time in 61 years that a streetcar, once again, rolled down a major Detroit thoroughfare with regular passengers.
While Detroit did maintain historic trolley cars up until 2003 on a quarter-mile track that stretched along Washington Boulevard from Grand Circus Park to Hart Plaza, nothing of this size or scale has been available in the city since 1956.
“Many of the folks who live here in Detroit will take advantage of this great investment,” said businessman Roger Penske, who was instrumental in getting the QLine built. “Think about it: Almost $7.2 billion has been spent along this rail line since they started 10 years ago; 221 businesses are doing things here today and 20,000 people are employed in the city of Detroit. This is just a wraparound of all those good things that are happening.”
After 10 years of working toward a vision of a start for rail transit along Woodward, the first streetcar rolled out at 10:20 a.m., mostly filled with dignitaries. Following a ribbon-cutting at the Grand Circus station across the street from the ceremony, the public boarded at 10:45 a.m.
The first streetcars were traveling from Grand Circus Park, down Woodward toward Congress following celebration festivities, which included Cass Tech High School’s marching band and speeches by the politicians and business moguls who contributed to the project.
"There's a lot of history on this road, and we're making it again," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, on Friday.
Michael Roberts, 34, of Redford Township, brought his family with him to ride the QLine on its inaugural day. He said his wife, Myra, their two children, Layla, 9, and London, 5, all had the day off and heard rides on the streetcar were free Friday. They got on at a stop near Wayne State.
“I think they did an awesome job as far as the commute from Midtown,” the Wayne State University business school student and retired Marine said. “For me, this is going to be really good for commuting from Midtown to Downtown.”
Roberts added he’s glad it’s here.
“The city definitely needs this,” he said. “I think it’ll pull the city closer. It gives everyone here a sense of home. It’s an awesome thing.”
Dan Lijana, a spokesman for the M-1 Rail, which owns the QLine, said demand Friday “was super high” and the system was running well. He said there was only one minor hiccup during operations Friday: one of the cars had to be brought into the garage to get its battery charged up.
In total, more than $106 million in private donations helped bring the vision to pass. With additional funding from local, state and federal sources, the QLine has received more than $182.2 million, enough to keep it running through 2022 according to M-1 Rail.
Getting to the launch of the QLine was perilous at times. The project faced a $12 million funding shortfall, and Michigan’s congressional members warned in 2014 the project could be in jeopardy unless the U.S. Department of Transportation provided more money.
The federal government did eventually provide funding in the form of two transportation grants totaling $37.2 million, according to Lijana.
Passengers will be treated to free rides all weekend. Beginning Monday, it will cost a rider $1.50 for a three-hour ticket, $3 for a day, $30 for a month and $285 for a year-long pass.
Kai Rivers, 38, of Detroit, brought her two daughters, Jyahri, 9, and Taiyla, 3, to ride the new streetcar. She had the day off and her girls didn’t have school Friday.
“We usually ride the People Mover for fun and then go have lunch somewhere and take a walk on the riverfront,” she said. “I heard QLine Grand Opening is today, and I thought ‘Let’s do that.’”
She and her children were able to get on the first streetcar the public was allowed to ride Friday. She held Taiyla in her arms and Jyahri stood close by, grabbing on to a safety rail.
Rivers said she remembers riding a trolley in Detroit when she was a little girl.
“I used to love it,” she said. “I only did it on Sundays with my grandma. We used to take it to go shopping.”
But not everyone was celebrating Friday.
A protest was held Friday morning at Grand Circus Park by the Motor City Freedom Riders, an organization of bus riders and their allies. They said they want to ensure a regional transit proposal is placed on the 2018 ballot by the Regional Transit Authority.
Candace Cooper, 41, of Detroit, was among the dozen or so people protesting on the corner of Woodward and West Adams, yards away from where the QLine launch was held. She said she came out to ask leaders to do more for regional public transit.
"I'm excited about the QLine, which is some public transit that's desperately needed," she said. "But I'm looking forward to when we have public transit for the region."
Metro Detroiters rejected a 20-year, $4.6 billion regional transit proposal on November’s ballot that would have invested in rail, buses and other services.
"Let's not cry about a small loss when we have a small win," said Evans of the defeat of the transit millage.