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It's official: no federal money for Detroit light rail--again

A proposed light rail project on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue won’t be getting millions in federal transit dollars—for now.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood awarded the so-called M-1 project a $25 million TIGER grant in 2010. But late last year, LaHood, Governor Snyder, and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing decided that money would be better spent on a regional rapid bus system.

Since then, M-1’s private backers—who have pledged millions toward the 3.4-mile span connecting downtown Detroit and the New Center area—have rallied to re-gain government support for the project.

But in a letter to Detroit businessman and M-1 Chair Roger Penske, LaHood explains why the project still hasn't won federal backing just yet.

LaHood outlines a list of ongoing concerns about the project, including:

  • The lack of a "credible plan approved by all funding partners to cover both short-term and long-term operating costs."
  • Continued delay in forming a Regional Transit Authority for southeast Michigan "to serve the greater transit needs of the region and serve as the eventual operator of the M-1 Rail Project."

However, LaHood reiterated his “strong support” for the project, adding: "Up to $25 million in in alternative sources of federal transportation funding may be rapidly available, contingent upon the ability of M-1 Rail, along with state and local stakeholders," to address the government's concerns.
The news wasn't totally unexpected. LaHood had a tense meeting with private M-1 backers and state and local leaders in Detroit earlier this month. Privately, some M-1 boosters grumbled about what they saw as the feds' "shifting goalposts" for the project, which has already been through multiple draft plans.

But those leaders tried to put a positive spin on LaHood's letter, saying they now believe they have "a clear path to yes" for the project.

"We believe we are closer to that point than ever before with a clear light at the end of the tunnel," M-1 backers wrote in a letter signed by businessmen Roger Penske and Dan Gilbert, M-1 CEO Matt Cullen, and Kresge Foundation leader Rip Rapson.

But it's not clear what the path forward is for the Regional Transit Authority in Lansing, especially during the summer months. Legislation has stalled after being introduced in the State Senate earlier this year.

However, Detroit Congressman Hansen Clarke says he's pushing the issue.

"I’m already having conversations with leaders in the state legislature, so that we can move and get this regional transit authority legislation adopted," Clarke said. "But one way or another, we’re gonna get the funding and get this project funded.”

Clarke says he thinks the M-1 project can and should secure federal money before the end of the fiscal year this fall.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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