Streetcar transportation has returned to Detroit, to the benefit of mobility and economic development.
The $144 million QLINE, built as a local catalyst project, began rolling May 12, 2017 on a 3.3-mile segment of Woodward Avenue. The six QLINE vehicles provide efficient, convenient transportation to the city's most important destinations for business, medical care, education, art, sports, and entertainment.
M-1 RAIL, the QLINE's nonprofit owner and operator, projects that the QLINE will average 5,000 rides in its first year and up to 8,000 rides within five years.
The QLINE represents a big step forward for Detroit, which went through municipal bankruptcy in 2013 and 2014. About 10 years ago, city business and educational leaders agreed that mass transit in the region needed a jump start, and that Woodward Avenue was the place to begin.
"It would connect all of our key assets up and down the corridor," said Paul Childs, chief operating officer of M-1 RAIL. "The achievement of getting this done in Detroit at that time is very important, because nothing like that had happened in a very long time."
How the plan came together
The group that planned the streetcar established owner-operator M-1 RAIL and M-2 RAIL, the developer-builder, as nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations. The combination of the two entities enabled the streetcar to receive New Market Tax funding and via the Michigan Department of Transportation, two federal grants totaling $37.2 million. In addition, more than $100 million in business and philanthropic donations was raised by private entities.
The nonprofit structure of the key organizations made it essential that the streetcar project not go over budget.
"We looked for project delivery methods that would deliver the project on time and within budget while minimizing risk," said Matt Webb, sr. project manager for HNTB, which served as the owner's representative and on the QLINE project.
Utilities, visuals and vehicles
One of the strategies that carried M-1 over the finish line was working cooperatively with utility companies, Childs said.
A 3-D model of underground utility infrastructure in the corridor, created by HNTB, demonstrated to the utility companies that not all of their assets would have to be relocated.
M-1 also sought to minimize visual disruptions along the route. To attain that goal, off-wire technology (using lithium-ion batteries) was deployed on approximately 60% of the line.
American-headquartered Brookville Equipment Corp., based in Brookville, Pennsylvania, was selected to provide the modern streetcar. Their Liberty Streetcar was selected to carry passengers based on its ability to meet the off-wire demands and goals Detroit and M-1 RAIL were looking to achieve.
Revving up the economy
The QLINE has juiced economic development up and down its route. "Once the project put a shovel in the ground (in 2013), that's when it became real for everybody," Childs said. "That's when the economic development story took root. Over that time frame until now, there's been a little north of $7 billion of finished, under-construction or committed projects along the corridor."
How to replicate the QLINE's success
The QLINE was built on partnerships. "It's all about the business community, the philanthropic community, local, state and federal governments, all getting together," Childs said. "If everybody gets together, there are a lot of things you can do."