M-1 Rail on track to wrap up construction by 2017

Wondering when those orange cones on Woodward Avenue will be gone and the much ballyhooed Detroit streetcar service will finally get up and running? W­­­hile there are still several months of track-laying ahead, M-1 Rail tells Mode Shift it expects construction to wrap up this December.

Work on the 3.3 mile circulating streetcar line, which will stretch between downtown Detroit and Grand Boulevard, started in July 2014. Once completed, the M-1 line will include 20 stops servicing 12 locations along Woodward.

Sommer Woods, M-1 Rail's Vice President of External Affairs tells Mode Shift their efforts downtown are essentially complete, except for a small section at State Street that should be completed by May. The majority of the work is now taking place in Detroit's Midtown and New Center neighborhoods.

"We're making really good progress," she says.

"The [mild] weather this winter is actually perfect for us because it allows us to work throughout the wintertime." Woods adds. "We're scheduled to be out of the corridor by the end of this year in terms of construction."

After physical work on the line is completed, the streetcar service still needs to be tested and approved by the federal government, a process that will probably take three or four months. M-1 Rail hopes to have the line up and running by the Tiger's Opening Day next April. When that happens, there will be festivities throughout the corridor celebrating the streetcars' arrival. No details on that yet, though, as those events are still being planned.

Looking ahead

So what will the line's vehicles actually look like? According to Woods, the cars, which are being built by the U.S.-based Brookville Equipment Company, will be modern-looking and come equipped with features like Wi-Fi, bike racks and level boarding.

"We're actually using the same vehicle that Dallas is using," she says. "Ours is a little bit wider, but for the most part that vehicle is our vehicle. So it's very clean, sleek, nice interior."

While the nonprofit M-1 Rail organization is overseeing the construction aspect of the project, the business of actually running the line will be handled by a third-party operator. Negotiations to determine who exactly that will be are still ongoing; M-1 Rail is looking at a field of candidates with national or international transit expertise.

If everything goes according to plan, control of the line would be handed over to the Southeast Michigan RTA after a decade. As for a name, some news outlets have conjectured it could be RocketRail, due the recent trademarking of the term by Quicken Loans, which owns the naming rights. M-1 Rail Spokesman Dan Lijana tells Mode Shift that's simply speculation, but tells us to expect a formal naming announcement in the near future.

While prices have not yet been finalized, the walk-on fare for the service is currently estimated at $1.50 with discounts for students and seniors.

With other providers, M-1 Rail is also looking into developing a card that would allow seamless transfers between the streetcar and other transit services like DDOT, SMART and the People Mover.

Looking to the future, it's possible that economic growth along the corridor could allow the service to surpass initial expectations.  Although daily ridership was originally projected at between 5,000 and 8,000 people a day, it's possible new development could drive those numbers up.

It's a symbiotic relationship too. M-1 Rail estimates there has been a return of $7 for every single dollar of capital investment spent on the $140 million streetcar endeavor, a number that includes the new Red Wings district and development on blocks adjacent to Woodward. According to Lijana, the total current investment is now at nearly a billion dollars with another $160 million planned for the corridor.

"All of those different developments are obviously going to be very critical for us in terms of our ridership numbers," he says. "When you look at a lot of streetcar systems when there is development that continues to thrive around it. Obviously, the numbers do go up. We're hoping to have the same."

If ridership booms, the streetcar service could potentially expand its hours beyond the initial schedule of Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. In that scenario, the physical track could be extended too, says Lijana, not just along Woodward, but also on other corridors like Michigan and Gratiot.

While it was difficult for the public and private partners involved with the M-1 Rail project to get the initial federal transportation funding to start up the streetcar service, Sommer says getting additional matching funds for existing project can often be quite a bit easier.

That said, she cautions that all that depends on how riders and taxpayers feel about M-1 Rail and the broader transit situation in the region.

"If people feel like it is efficient, they feel it is cost-effective, they feel it is safe, then you're able to have these other conversations for people to look into expansion."

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