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December 11, 2012

Local officials feeling optimistic about future of mass transit

Woodward Avenue alternative analysis well under way

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments’ (SEMCOG) transit study of Woodward Avenue continues to move forward, as the state government sits on the verge of creating a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in metro Detroit.

On Nov. 27, the Michigan Senate approved a series of bills by a 24-14 vote to establish the transit authority and a 10-member governing board. The Michigan House of Representatives followed suit Dec. 6 with a vote of 57-50. While the bills were still awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature at press time, local officials counted the state Legislature’s approval as a major victory for all those who want to bring rapid transit to southeast Michigan.

“It’s all coming together rather nicely,” said Carmine Palombo, director of transportation planning for SEMCOG, who spoke before House approval. Once the governor finalizes the creation of an RTA — a project that he has made one of his top priorities — Palombo added, “then the real work begins. Then we can start implementing the results of all this planning.”

Berkley City Councilman Steve Baker, a member of SEMCOG’s 13-member steering committee that is studying mass transit options along Woodward Avenue, who spoke before House approval, called the Senate’s support “a strong step forward. The value of having a Regional Transit Authority cannot be overstated; It gives us the clarity and certainty that we need to bring mass transit to the entire region.”

Ferndale City Councilwoman Melanie Piana, another member of the SEMCOG steering committee, is excited not only about the idea of fulfilling a plan that has been more than four decades in the making, but also about the fact that southeast Oakland County will be right at the center of it all.

“Now is the time for us to finally bring mass transit to metro Detroit, and it’s nice to know that Woodward will be the spine of our new system,” she said prior to House approval. “Gaining approval of this legislation (is) a monumental step forward for our region.”

Locally, a federally sponsored rapid transit analysis of Woodward Avenue is already well under way. In October 2011, the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) announced that it would be issuing a two-year, $2 million grant to conduct an alternative transportation study of a seven-mile stretch of Woodward, from Eight Mile Road to Maple Road.

However, as Piana explained, the process was delayed by several months after the city of Detroit, along with state and federal officials, elected to drop a proposed light-rail system that would have included Woodward within its design. The FTA then asked SEMCOG to expand the scope of its alternative analysis to include the entire 27-mile Woodward corridor, from Detroit to Pontiac. Once the overall project scope was nailed down, SEMCOG had to recruit engineers to conduct the study, which delayed the start of the project until July 2012.

“It’s a very long and rigorous process, where everything has to be vetted, so there’s nothing unusual about that (delay),” Palombo explained. “We’re still trying to identify which mode of transportation will be the best and the most cost-effective for Woodward. Our work will hopefully be done by this time next year, but we just want to make sure that everything works together and is coordinated as one big effort.”

According to Palombo, SEMCOG and its engineers at the firm Parsons Brinckerhoff are now in the process of identifying three generic transportation alternatives along the Woodward corridor: light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT) and an express bus service. That phase should be completed within the next seven or eight weeks, he said, at which point SEMCOG will be able to eliminate two of those three alternatives.

Still, while no decisions have yet been made, it appears that local officials are leaning toward BRT as the best transit option for Woodward. On Dec. 19, SEMCOG will even be taking as many as 30 community representatives on a one-day trip to Cleveland, Ohio, to study that city’s BRT system and ride its buses in person.

“We probably will not have the money to build light rail,” Palombo said, “so our alternative analysis may show that we would get almost all the same benefits with BRT at only a fraction of the cost. But we won’t know for sure until we see the final results.”

Piana agreed. “BRT is looking more and more like it will be a key part of this equation,” she said. “It’s a very feasible, affordable option for Woodward.”

Baker, though, was more hesitant to express any direct support for BRT at this time. “Each transit option has its own set of benefits and drawbacks, and I trust that the study will tell us which one is the best choice for Woodward,” he said. “I’m just grateful for the involvement of all 11 communities along the Woodward corridor for making this happen.”

To ensure that residents have a voice in this process, SEMCOG has been hosting a series of public forums that feature a 30-minute presentation on the issue, followed by an open house. Meetings have already taken place in Berkley, Detroit and Birmingham, while future meetings will be held in Ferndale Dec. 12 and in Pontiac Dec. 15.

“Public input and feedback are essential to helping the (SEMCOG) steering committee make sure that this Woodward transit system is meeting everyone’s needs,” Piana said. “These are the first mass transit meetings that this area has had in generations, so we’re trying to take all the good things that people remember about the old street-car system and incorporate them into this new system. We really hope that people will come out and be a part of this process.”

For more information on the Woodward Avenue rapid transit alternative analysis, contact SEMCOG at (313) 961-4266 or at www.semcog.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.