Rick Haglund, Michigan Advance
December 17, 2023
Dan Gilbert has been a major force in revitalizing downtown Detroit, over the years acquiring about 100 office towers and other buildings in the city’s once moribund center.
Gilbert owns so much of the central city that it’s sometimes called “Gilbertville.”
But the billionaire mortgage mogul recently said one critical element is missing in turning Detroit into a vibrant urban hub that can attract talent to Michigan: transit.
“Just think about how great that would be if you have [rail] lines going to [Detroit] Metro Airport, up Woodward, all the way to Pontiac and going west and then going east — it would be unreal,” Gilbert said at a Detroit Free Press breakfast event last month. “It would be a different city. And again, it would give us the ability to attract more talent here.”
This is not a new idea. Metro Detroit leaders have asserted for decades that the lack of a comprehensive public transit system is a major economic development drag on the region and state.
They’ve made little progress in building it, though. But Michigan could be experiencing a turning point in getting serious about transit, as evidenced by Gilbert’s potential influence, Amtrak’s new transit proposals and other developments.
An $8.2 billion appropriation from the Federal Railroad Administration, the largest investment in U.S. passenger rail in decades, has provided planning grants for improved service between Chicago, Grand Rapids, Port Huron and Detroit; the extension of service between Detroit and Toronto; and envisions a new passenger corridor that would connect Detroit, Cleveland and Toledo.
The Amtrak plan also includes a rail connector between downtown Detroit and Metro Airport, something that transit advocates have been pushing for years as a crucial economic development tool.
And on Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Growing Michigan Together Council” issued its final report, calling for greater investment in transit. The report noted that young people “are flocking to major metropolitan areas anchored by vibrant city centers” where public transit is “woven into residents’ daily lives.”
Michigan this year has appropriated $654 million for local public transit agencies, as well as capital and operating assistance for Amtrak passenger service in the state, representing about 11% of the state’s $6.1 billion transportation budget.
Gaining support for a sharp increase in that funding could be difficult because of Michigan’s long preference for building roads and bridges, and fears that public transit, including buses, bus rapid transit and rail, could be in a “death spiral” as ridership has yet to recover from the COVID pandemic.
Building the kind of rail transit system that Gilbert envisions — and beyond — will be no small task. Rail projects are notorious for huge cost overruns and depend on state and local governments providing matching funds to obtain federal construction money.
I’ve written about metro Minneapolis’s light rail and commuter rail systems, considered to be among the best in the country. But it’s taken more than half a century of dogged effort by Minnesota’s leaders to build it out.
Despite the huge costs and an uncertain ridership future, other states, including Florida and Texas, are building multibillion-dollar rail transit systems they believe will spark economic growth, as well as provide needed transportation alternatives for their current residents.
Illinois and Minnesota, the two Great Lakes states with the highest per-capita incomes, are investing heavily in rail systems that will connect larger cities in their states.
Minnesota has allocated $200 million toward the construction of a passenger rail line connecting Duluth and the Twin Cities. The Democratic-controlled legislature also this year levied a 0.75% sales tax in the seven-county metro Minneapolis region that will raise more than $440 million a year for public transit there.
Illinois is restoring passenger rail service between Chicago and Rockford for the first time since the early 1980s, part of a nearly $10 billion plan to boost transit in the state over the next five years.
The only proposed passenger rail project connecting Michigan cities is a planned Ann Arbor-to-Traverse City route, which has received $2.3 million in state and federal planning grants.
Transit advocates say Michigan needs a more comprehensive intercity transit network to make the state more attractive to younger people, many of whom Gilbert says prefer riding trains and bikes to driving a car.
Amtrak links most southern Michigan cities. But there is no direct connection between Detroit and Grand Rapids, the state’s two largest cities. It can take anywhere from five hours to nearly 15 hours to travel the 160 miles between the two cities by train, depending on departure times.
But the weight of Gilbert’s public pronouncements about the need for better transit could be the spark that finally leads to action.
On Thursday, the same day the Growing Michigan Together Council released its recommendations to boost the state’s population, the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan announced it was in talks to acquire the privately owned QLine in downtown Detroit.
The QLine is a 3.3-mile-long streetcar built and owned by the nonprofit M-1 Rail. Gilbert is vice chairman of the M-1 board and his Quicken Loans company owns naming rights to the QLine.
M-1 Rail officials said the QLine was always envisioned as part of a larger regional transit system. Gilbert said the main reason for constructing the line “was to prove to the feds we could get something done.”
If Gilbert’s words and actions on transit finally lead to significant progress, that would be, in his words, “unreal.”
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