Amid Detroit area transit debate, cue the QLine

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit -- It’s a streetcar that’s been desired for more than a decade by Detroit’s business elite, but whether the public plans to be on board remains to be seen.

The QLine streetcar system debuts Friday morning with a scheduled ceremony at the Grand Circus station, which will include a who’s who of the Motor City followed by a weekend of free rides for the public.

But once the fanfare dies down, questions will remain whether the QLine will be viable and if it can expand beyond its 3.3-mile Detroit footprint along Woodward.

A QLine how-to navigate guide

“It can be very successful on its own, but it is a piece of the overall transit solution in our region, which is what we need,” said Matt Cullen, CEO of M-1 Rail, which owns and operates the QLine. “It is a piece of the solution. No one ever said it was the overall solution.”

Cullen said success with the QLine would demonstrate to the federal government that Metro Detroit can embrace mass transit and could lead to expansion beyond Woodward.

“We hope over time it will expand north along Woodward,” he said. “And in the next 10 years, there may be a couple of new lines possibly along Jefferson or Gratiot.”

Behind the glitz of the QLine’s public debut is more than a $106 million trail of private money from local philanthropists backing the city’s reinvention.

Business titans Dan Gilbert, the late Mike Ilitch, Roger Penske and Rip Rapson and their companies and foundations are among the major contributors to the $140 million streetcar system.

Howes: Rolling QLine — next step in Detroit reinvention

With additional money from private, local, state and federal sources, the QLine has received more than $182.2 million, enough funding to last through 2022, according to M-1 Rail. It will take about $6 million a year to sustain it.

“One of the ways we would determine whether it is a success is if we get 5,000 rides, not riders, a day,” M-1 Rail spokesman Dan Lijana said.

Lijana also said the QLine was “always envisioned as a demonstration project for transit and a catalyst for a true regional transit system.”

“We’re also talking here about connecting a growing residential center in the New Center, North End and Midtown and downtown with cultural institutions, entertainment options downtown, two major hospitals and Wayne State University,” he said.

QLine to make connections

Gilbert, Quicken Loans’ chairman and founder, believes the QLine has the potential to be a game-changer for the city. Gilbert’s companies have given $11.4 million and acquired QLine’s naming rights to make that point.

“This train is going to make connections both literally and figuratively that we can’t even imagine yet,” he wrote to The Detroit News via email. “Most of all, it teaches us that the basis of all accomplishment, wealth and jobs creation starts with vision, relationships and partnerships.”

Rapson, CEO of the Kresge Foundation, said the foundation’s initial gift of $35 million in 2007 was intended to demonstrate to other potential corporate and philanthropic funders there was significant support for a streetcar development in the city.

Kresge injected a second contribution of $15 million in 2013 when construction and material costs exceeded QLine’s $100 million original estimate.

Since its inception, Rapson and Kresge believed a streetcar system on Woodward would do several things: create new connections among commercial, cultural, medical and educational institutions along the avenue; revitalize the local economy; and resuscitate the tax base by encouraging development of housing, retail and other amenities as the areas within walking distance of the stops began to populate.

For the last part, Rapson said, “the streetcar would not be a solution, but a down payment on a larger regional transit system.”

“The development report M-1 Rail published last week, noting that more than $7 billion in development is complete, under construction or in the pipeline along the 3.3-mile route since 2013, is an early indication that this notion is playing out at significant scale,” he said.

But it’s only 6.6 miles round trip, say detractors, and it’s not really mass transit, only connecting Campus Martius to New Center.

Picket planned for opening

The Motor City Freedom Riders transit advocacy group plans to picket the public opening Friday morning.

“There’s really no good reason to be patting ourselves on the back because we still have a mass transit crisis in this region,” coordinator Joel Batterman said.

Metro Detroiters have shown lack of appetite to expand mass transit. Voters rejected a 20-year, $4.6 billion regional transit proposal on November’s ballot that would have invested in rail, buses and other services.

Tiffany Gunter, interim CEO of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, said the organization, which pushed for the millage, is “glad to see rail transit being re-introduced.”

The master plan of the RTA, which is independent of M-1 Rail, calls for the agency to assume operational control of the QLline after 10 years of private operations, according to Gunter.

“The QLine is a catalyst project that further illustrates the RTA’s message that public transit is about mobility and economic opportunity,” she said.

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