Howes: Rolling QLine — next step in Detroit reinvention

Daniel Howes, The Detroit News

Come Friday, a symbol of Detroit’s reinvention will start rolling along Woodward Avenue.

The QLine is a bolts-and-sheet-metal manifestation of powerful business and philanthropic interests playing a long game, interrupted as it was by recession and municipal bankruptcy. It also signals another step forward in the revitalization of a downtown that a lot of Detroiters — in the city and in the suburbs — long ago gave up for dead.

Turns out the urban fatalists may have been premature. Oh, the 3.3-mile light rail line has its critics — of the project, of its wealthy donors or both. What doesn’t in this town, where blame-shifting, self-flagellation and righteous cynicism generally exist in equal measure, no matter what the macro-economic environment?

Amid Detroit area transit debate, cue the QLine

How ’bout giving the venture a chance, and letting the real people living and working along downtown’s central spine have their say. It’s them, not the voices lobbing cheap shots from the comfort of their keyboards, who will decide whether the big bet will pay off ... over time, not in the first six months.

It’s business leaders along the Woodward corridor who will render their own verdict on how much — or how little — the sleek streetcars help businesses that paid a price during two years of construction. It’s investors who are anticipating how the line will increase property values and better connect Midtown to downtown, the entertainment district to the Detroit River.

“We started off on this thing to be a catalyst for regional transit and for economic development,” says Matt Cullen, CEO of M-1 Rail and CEO of Rock Ventures LLC, an affiliate business of Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert. “We wanted to show them a system that we hope everyone will ride” — a businessman next to an art student next to a suburban family heading to a Tigers game.

A QLine how-to navigate guide

If mounting evidence of the pent-up demand for new Detroit experiences is any indicator (try walking in to Andy Hollyday’s Selden Standard on a Saturday night and getting a table), the chances are decent that more than a few people are likely to give the QLine a try.

With the popping retail and restaurant scene along the corridor, and the prospect of more with the opening of the line, there’s more reason to ride than anytime in a long time: rush-hour traffic can be problematic; parking is growing more expensive; and the vibrant downtown scene is only likely to grow more so as the Ilitch family’s District Detroit opens and retail flourishes.

Like Gilbert’s expanding downtown empire, like the “grand bargain” that rescued the Detroit Institute of Arts from creditors and bolstered support for city retirees, like redeveloping pockets of downtown, the QLine is hard proof that private capital is leading the way in Detroit’s reinvention.

That’s fitting for one of America’s great business towns. The $182 million rail project is financed largely by private corporations, well-known industrialists and philanthropies like the Troy-based Kresge Foundation (at $50 million, the project’s single largest donor) and the New York-based Ford Foundation.

So-called “Tiger” funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation totaled $37.2 million for the project. The state of Michigan, the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s “Pure Michigan” campaign, Wayne State University and Wayne County altogether contributed another $23 million.

The rest? Private donors, what then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood touted as one of the largest private contributions to public transit anywhere in the country. Given the more recent history of the city’s bankruptcy, the grand bargain and the role of private capital in both, that shouldn’t be surprising.

This is an effort more deserving of recognition than opprobrium. Instead of depending solely on city, state and federal taxpayers to underwrite the entire effort, business and civic leaders invested in the reinvention of Detroit are putting their own dollars into a transit project that’s more down payment than destination.

Buy it or not, the prospect of M-1 beginning to run is an additional catalyst for development (past, present and planned) up and down Woodward. You think the location of all those projects, large and small, is an accident? That the big money behind the biggest developments (think Gilbert and Ilitch and Wayne State) is an accident?

One of its by-products: realizing the vision of M-1 also makes the region eligible for another $65 million in federal transit funds — money that could be used to expand the QLine, connect it to regional transit or take next steps in a Pontiac-to-Detroit light-rail line.

“There are all sorts of possibilities,” says Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson. He’s got that right.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.