Duggan: Underground railway tunnel way of future for Detroit Metro

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Downtown Detroit Partnership CEO Eric Larson speaks with Mayor Mike Duggan during the organization's summer stakeholder meeting Tuesday afternoon in the Gem and Century Theatre.

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan said Tuesday that connecting the Detroit Metropolitan Airport to a railway could happen in the future ... if it's underground.

Duggan said at the Downtown Detroit Partnership summer stakeholder meeting that airplane runways make such a link unfeasible above ground. Connecting to the airport underground, however, might be possible in light of Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's work in building underground transportation tunnels in Los Angeles

"As soon as I hear from the mayor of Los Angeles that this thing really works, then we're going to be pursuing it," Duggan said during a conversation with DPP CEO Eric Larson on stage at the Gem and Century Theatre.

The mayor's comments come at a time when the thousands of vacant acres in Wayne and Washtenaw counties surrounding the airport have seen new interest from businesses, including Amazon, Brose North America, and Penske Logistics. Detroit Region Aerotropolis Development Corp. has emphasized the location's proximity to the airport, freeways and railways in its attempts to bring commercial activity to the area.

Musk began digging a 2.7-mile underground tunnel in West Los Angeles in August through the Boring Co., a company he founded to build a high-speed subway that would transport cars in pods underground to avoid traffic-heavy LA streets. Musk posted on Instagram last month that the first tunnel is "almost done."

"He believes he is going to dramatically cut the ability to create transit tunnels," Duggan said. "If we could significantly cut the costs of going underground and connecting to a terminal, it's going to be viable."

Travelers from the Romulus airport now need to drive or take a bus to catch a train in Dearborn.

"It's not really the way people want to commute," he said. "I think you will see the day when the technology is there that you take a train and loop straight into the terminal."

Duggan made the statements a day after Matthew Moroun said Ford Motor Co. is purchasing Michigan Central Depot in Corktown. It is unclear if Ford will operate the building in a capacity with trains, though more details on Ford's plans are expected on Tuesday.

"You're going to have to wait for the announcement to appreciate the magnitude of it," Duggan said. "It's going to be more important for the city even than what they did with Ford Field."

Railroad connection to the airport stemmed from a broader conversation about regional transportation in Metro Detroit. A coalition of 220 business leaders last month called for a vote on a regional transit and millage plan. A 20-year, $5.4 billion millage proposal could appear on the November ballot should Wayne County Executive Warren Evans garner enough support for it.

"We are competing as a region every day for business, against Chicago, against Pittsburgh, against Indianapolis," Duggan said. "Our lack of a regional transport system is hurting everyone in Sterling Heights. It's hurting everybody in Novi. It's hurting everybody in Detroit."

Larson of DDP agreed, noting the transportation challenges for senior citizens and school-age children.

"We have to look at this more holistic approach to the way we're creating, not only a really resilient community," he said, "but a community that embraces equity, access, and inclusion."