It has been decades since Detroit was seen as a forward-looking urban community instead of an inner-city wasteland racked by crime, vacant buildings and government debt. But the federal government last week put the finishing touches on what will soon be a 3-mile light rail system through the heart of downtown. The project is a model partnership between the public and private sectors, and it should stand as an example for how Tampa Bay could get its act together on transportation.
The federal government pledged $25 million Friday to build a streetcar line through Detroit's city center, capping a long, frustrating effort to bring light rail to one of the country's last few major urban centers without it. The $140 million, 3.3-mile line along Woodward Avenue will be funded primarily by a public-private partnership with contributions from companies whose workers commute to the downtown. The nonprofit rail coalition, whose members include foundations, businesses, and public and private groups, plans to fund more than $100 million of the $137 million project.
The venture is a testament to a stick-to-it mentality and to the power of worthy civic cause. Business leaders like auto magnate Roger Penske put their money behind their wish for urban renewal. Michigan lawmakers created an authority to promote regional mass transit projects across the state, laying the groundwork for communities to join together in constructing and operating urban rail. Despite 24 failed attempts in 40 years, state, local and business leaders kept plugging away and found a formula for making rail happen.
The line will connect Campus Martius Park (a vibrant, mixed-use destination downtown), Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team), Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University. Tens of thousands of office employees and downtown visitors will have an easier way to move around the city center. And for an urban area that has been known most recently for violence, blight and population flight, the project will be a magnet for development and a unifying force in the city's cultural fabric. It marks the start of another era for a city whose better days had passed.
If Detroit can do it, so can Tampa Bay. But political leaders need to show more ambition and urgency. Business needs to step up and make transportation central to the region's economic development strategy. And the public and private sectors in the bay area need to work more in sync to make improved regional transit a statewide priority, just as Central Florida did to get the SunRail commuter rail system under way. Persistence pays off. Ask Detroit.