An ambitious plan to build a light-rail line in Detroit has been scrapped in favor of a system of high-speed city and suburban buses, several officials briefed on the decision told the Free Press on Tuesday.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Detroit Mayor Dave Bing that doubts that Detroit could pay operating costs over the long term for the light-rail line because of the city's and the state's financial problems swayed him against the plan. The decision came despite earlier public support that included LaHood's 2010 visit to Detroit to award a $25 million grant to get the project moving.
LaHood, President Barack Obama's top transportation official, met last week with Bing and Gov. Rick Snyder, and the sides agreed that the better option is a system of rapid-transit buses operating in dedicated lanes on routes from downtown to and through the suburbs, the officials said.
The death of the light-rail plan brings an end to about four years of intensive effort by the city, private developers and nonprofit groups to create what was widely viewed as the most promising attempt in decades for a light-rail system to Detroit.
Bing's office wouldn't release details of the discussions but said the mayor and LaHood agreed that the city, where more than 60 percent of residents with jobs work in the suburbs, would be better served by high-speed buses instead of rail, said Bing spokesman Dan Lijana.
"Mayor Bing and Secretary LaHood have had numerous conversations and are on the same page on the future of transit in Detroit," Lijana said.
Geralyn Lasher, a spokeswoman for Snyder, said the governor has been supportive of a rapid transit bus system for Detroit and southeast Michigan, but light rail trains are "out of our lane. ... We've always been more in the line of the rapid bus."
Details about how the rapid bus system would be built weren't available. Officials said the federal money already granted to Detroit can be transferred to a new bus system.
The decision to scrap the light-rail plan outraged Megan Owens, director of the Detroit advocacy group Transportation Riders United, who said she had heard rumblings in recent weeks that "the project was in trouble."
Supporters said the light-rail line would spur major residential and commercial redevelopment well in excess of what it would cost to build the line.
"We're basically throwing away a $3 billion economic development investment," Owens said. "I'm outraged Mayor Bing would let this happen on his watch."