The QLine, Detroit’s first 3.3-mile streetcar in decades which opened to much fanfare last month, reaffirmed an undeniable fact: When private sector leadership and government band together, something significant happens, no matter how laborious and costly the project is.
But the QLine also exposes a regrettable fallibility in southeast Michigan: The dream of fully realizing a mass transit system to shape the future of the region continues to be a dream deferred despite decades of conversations. This was especially evident in last year’s failure to pass a millage to fund mass transit by the Regional Transit Authority. The rejection of the millage underscores the fact that conversation around a public transit system that connects communities in the region often lends itself to more division than unity.
Thus, some are wondering whether a state-of-the-art public transit system that will connect Detroit with Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ferndale, and broaden access for diverse visitors arriving at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, can ever be realized.
“I think that angst is understandable. People in this region deserve better transit options and they’ve waited far too long for them. It’s very frustrating. That’s why I was outspoken in support of both the QLine and the RTA millage,” said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. “But I do think we need to look very closely at our strategy in trying to achieve true regional transit. It just hasn’t worked, and no one is served well by decade after decade of a failed pursuit.
“Many of the supporters of QLine are supporters of regional transit. I think we’ve learned that the only successes Metro Detroit has had in regional transit are specific projects, including the QLine. Every attempt to push a comprehensive system has failed. So my logic suggests, let’s identify two or three projects that have support and would fit into a larger system and get them done.”
Matt Cullen, CEO of M-1 Rail, which operates the QLine, said: “The M-1 RAIL board of directors will continue to lead and advocate for regional transit. QLine works closely with DDOT, SMART, People Mover and private business along the corridor and that’s an approach that’s proven effective. We remain optimistic that southeast Michigan will come together in support of a regional system.”
In Macomb County, where the RTA millage suffered the biggest defeat — six of 10 voters rejected the ballot measure — Mark Hackel, the county executive, said the result doesn’t mean residents oppose the concept of regional transit.
“Macomb County supports regional transit. We’ve always supported the SMART bus system. Voters just did not buy into the last proposal,” Hackel said. “What residents want now is fixing our roads first, because areas near Mound Road have huge potential for investment but they are crumbling because of bad roads there.”
Hackel said the QLine was launched because “the private sector needs it for their downtown Detroit investment. They should help add to the creation of a regional transit system.”
Mark De LaVergne, the chief of mobility in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration, said the city isn’t backing down on transit investment.
“Every investment we make in transit, whether it is the successful launch of both the QLine and MoGo (Detroit bike share), DDOT re-establishing 24-hour service on nine routes in the city, or the increased frequency of buses on many of our core routes, supports a stronger Detroit and a stronger region,” De LaVergne said. “We still have much to do in order to make up for the disinvestment in transit that the city experienced prior to the mayor, but the QLine is an important step on the path forward.”
Megan Owens, the executive director of Transportation Riders United, an advocacy group, said the region came closer to realizing a transit system during the last election cycle.
“I’m more frustrated than anyone that the funding measure lost. A better-run campaign, more support from county leaders, more effective RTA community outreach, or a different presidential race — any one factor could have switched the vote to a win and we could be riding airport shuttles and planning real rapid transit throughout the region,” Owens said. “Because the need is so pressing and because we were so close, it is vitally important that everyone in the region keep pushing forward for regional transit progress.”
Owens said she believes the QLine is another step toward meeting regional transit.
“I certainly wish that the QLine ran in its own dedicated lane and had priority at traffic signals so it could be a faster and more reliable form of travel. That said, I believe the city and the region are better off having the QLine provide an attractive and convenient way to get around one of the busiest corridors in the state,” she said.
Evans said the question of a regional transit will now have to be addressed on a piecemeal basis.
“Let’s start building a few more pieces and once we get a few successes, I think more people will opt in over the long term. It’s going to have to be a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality for the region in regard to a comprehensive transit system,” Evans said.
While critics of the QLine see the project as another reinforcement of downtown Detroit’s investment and say it is not nearly enough to address the transportation needs of Detroiters, let alone the region, Cullen notes that the “QLine’s historic impact on the infrastructure and development along the Woodward Corridor is a demonstration of why investing in transit is so important for the region. Since 2013, more than $7 billion in development has been completed, is currently under construction or planned.”
The QLine only deepens both the divide and the interest in regional mass transportation.
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.