Detroit enjoys a long history of streetcar service, but the new $140 million M-1 RAIL system, with it sleek cars and technologically robust operations, bears little resemblance to those early models.
"M-1 RAIL will serve Detroit's largest job centers and most visited destinations while providing a foundation for improved and expanded public transit throughout the region," says Paul Childs, M-1 RAIL Chief Operating Officer. "The system will also ignite tremendous new growth and job creation."
The 3.3-mile system runs north and south on both sides of Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main drag and a national scenic byway. The city's cultural, entertainment, medical and business assets dot the corridor. Twenty strategically placed stations at 12 locations are under construction.
"What was lacking was connectivity," Childs says. "Streetcars are an economic development tool. For every dollar you put into a streetcar project, you get a $4 to $8 return. It's a win-win-win for the city."
In fact, that desire to stimulate economic development goes to the root of an unprecedented public-private partnership that has made this project a reality. The city's civic leaders and supporters came together to promote the Super Bowl in 2006 and realized how exciting it was to enjoy a vibrant downtown, even in the winter. They decided the city needed to connect people with assets along the corridor. People at the University of Detroit Mercy and Deloitte Consulting conducted a feasibility study pro bono.
"The logical thing to connect it with was a streetcar," Childs recalls. "It was driven by the private sector."
Private and philanthropic donors provided more than $100 million toward the project and the federal government $37 million, including a $12.2 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. Additionally, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has committed to spending $54 million on the concurrent road and bridge reconstruction.
"It is the first major public transit project led and funded by private businesses and philanthropic organizations, in partnership with local, state and federal governments," says Childs, calling it a model for regional collaboration.
The nonprofit M-1 RAIL formed in 2007 to design, construct and operate the streetcar. Its mission is to "create a catalyst for investment, economic development and urban renewal that positively impacts the entire region." Studies estimate the project could lead to $3.5 billion in new development during the next 10 years. Leaders expect about 10,000 residential units will be built.
Already an entertainment complex, the home of the Detroit Red Wings, has broken ground along the route, as well as a mixed-use project and residential complexes. Residential occupancy ranges between 97 percent and 98 percent for the last two years.
"We are pleased to see all of the development activities going on," Childs says. "There is a tremendous demand to live along the corridor. Part of that is energized by us and part by the city."
Not waiting for a live system to boost Detroit's business community, M-1 RAIL structured the bid process to attract local firms, breaking large packages into smaller ones. The project has already awarded nearly 30 percent of the construction and concurrent roadwork, $40 million, to Detroit-based, women, minority and disadvantaged business enterprises.
"It's preparing these companies so they can go after bigger work," Childs reports. "This is important for job creation."
Stacy and Witbeck of Alameda, California, began work on the project in July 2014, and it is on schedule for a late 2016 completion. About 300 people currently work on the construction.
Placing a new rail system, using continuously welded rail, through downtown Detroit has presented some construction challenges. Crews have also run into some interesting surprises excavating Woodward Avenue. The street began as a two-lane road with buildings constructed near the street. Hence, the contractors found some remaining foundations that crews needed to work around. Workers also removed hundreds of feet of the old Detroit Streetcar System's track work.
Crews discovered historic abandoned utilities, which include wooden waterlines, wooden conduit duct banks, old steam lines, and many other outdated underground infrastructure and utility items. Some dated back to the 1800s. That required rebuilding or relocating. M-1 RAIL and MDOT teamed up to rebuild the road at the same time, so there will be new utilities and drainage. All of the underground information has been compiled on a 3-D model, which M1-RAIL is sharing with the utilities.
The construction specifications called for flash-butt welding of initial 80-foot-long "strings" of American-made steel rail into 560-foot-long segments in a shop opened just for this project. It then stockpiled the completed segments.
"You get a stronger, higher integrity weld and minimize the number of field welds," Childs explains.
Crews then dragged those long segments through downtown Detroit on rollers to their final location along Woodward Avenue and dropped them into place. Once these 560-foot strings were in place, they were welded together using thermite rail welding processes, which employs a chemical reaction to bond the steel together.
"One of the biggest challenges is identifying a location near the streetcar route to weld and store the 560-foot-long pile of Continuously Welded Rail," Childs reports. "Fortunately, we've been able to forge some great strategic partnerships that have given us access to a lay down space that we can use to store the rail."
The scope of work also includes replacement of two bridges over Intestates 75 and 94; construction of the 20 station platforms, being built by White Construction of Detroit; traction power, train signal and communication systems; traffic signals; street lighting, systems infrastructure, and public and private utility relocation.
The M-1 RAIL will operate in mixed traffic, typically along the curb and in the center at certain points. Most of the road is nine-lanes wide, and the balance four lanes, so there is room for rail to run with vehicles.
The streetcars will operate seven days per week, cost about $5 million to operate annually and serve about 6,000 riders daily. The streetcar will stop for traffic lights and travel about 35 miles per hour.
A battery system, with 750-volt, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, will power 60 percent of the M-1 RAIL. The system allows for fast charges while the coaches are on wire and in some stations. The off-wire technology enhances aesthetics and safety and enables more efficient maintenance and repair due to safe, but simpler, procedures for technicians, Childs explains.
The other 40 percent, due to the slope of the road, will require overhead power lines. The coaches will have arms to lift up when they need to connect to overhead electric lines and return to a down position while on battery power. The Penske Technical Center, the storage and maintenance facility being built by Turner Construction in Detroit, will also operate off the wire.
Operators will drive the six custom coaches, each 66-feet long and carry an average of 125 people. Brookville Equipment Corp., of Brookville, Pennsylvania, will design, build, test and safety certify the six individual streetcars.
For rider convenience, the streetcar system features Wi-Fi, bike storage, level boarding and an HVAC system capable of making the cars comfortable in all weather.
In addition to developing the streetcar system, M-1 RAIL became a catalyst in the formation of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan. Eventually, that regional authority could operate the streetcars, after M-1 RAIL completes its 10-year operations commitment.
Plans are under way for a common fare card among existing bus providers. The line will connect to multiple modes of transportation.
"This is a completely innovative project," Childs concludes. "Both the public-private partnership and the regional aspects."
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