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After 61 Years, Detroit Gets A Streetcar Once More

A streetcar rides along Woodward Avenue on Friday in Detroit — the city's first in 61 years. The QLine project was led by private businesses and philanthropic organizations in partnership with local, state and the federal government.
Carlos Osorio
A streetcar rides along Woodward Avenue on Friday in Detroit — the city's first in 61 years. The QLine project was led by private businesses and philanthropic organizations in partnership with local, state and the federal government.

Today marks the launch of something both old and new in Detroit: a streetcar down Woodward Avenue. The streetcar opened to the public on Friday morning, after 10 years of planning and political wrangling.

The six streetcars make a 6.6 mile loop — 3.3 miles each way — connecting downtown Detroit with the New Center neighborhood, which was home to General Motors until it decamped downtown two decades ago.

Along the way, passengers can stop at Comerica Park and Ford Field (home to the Tigers and Lions, respectively), Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Fox Theatre and the Detroit Opera House. In the fall, Little Caesars Arena will open along the line, which will house the Red Wings and the Pistons, marking the first time since 1974 that Detroit's four major professional sports teams will all play in Detroit.

The streetcar is called the QLine; Quicken Loans paid $5 million for the naming rights. The line is owned and operated by a nonprofit organization called M-1 Rail. Quicken's founder and chairman Dan Gilbert was one of a number of Detroit's deep-pocketed businessmen and philanthropists who funded the $182 million project, alongside Penske Corp.'s Roger Penske, the Kresge Foundation's Rip Rapson, and the late Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars Pizza. An additional $37.2 million comes from the federal government, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Transit projects in America are often slow-going, but this one had its own particular woes. "The city was a financial mess, and tried to absorb M-1 Rail as part of a larger public rail project," writes Bill Shea at Crain's Detroit Business:

"Then Detroit ran out of money, fell under state control, and declared bankruptcy. One financial backer, General Motors, also went bankrupt and had to reorganize. One mayor went to prison, and three others eventually came and went. The nation fell into recession. Eventually, the federal government, state, and city tried to kill M-1 in favor of bus rapid transit.

"The project's backers persevered. Eventually, they pulled it off. No matter what you think of the QLine, it's been a survivor. It just took a decade."

Portland, Ore.'s "modern streetcar" has been a model for similar projects in other cities; at least 15 U.S. cities have launched streetcar systems since 2000. Streetcars have often been criticized as expensive alternatives to buses. But their backers say that streetcars aren't really about transit, they're about development.

"Streetcar systems are held to a pretty high standard in terms of being ... successful right out of the gate. I think what you see in most cities is that it takes a while for people to understand where it goes and how it fits into their life and how to use it," Portland Streetcar Executive Director Dan Bower told the Free Press. "Don't rush to judgment. This is a long-term investment. You don't build rail for today, you build it for tomorrow."

M-1 Rail echoes that sentiment in its economic impact report. It claims $7 billion in new investments on either side of the streetcar's path since 2013.

"What the QLINE has done is take the entire length of Woodward from the river to Grand Boulevard and provide an attractive reason to develop and redevelop," Eric Larson, president of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, said in the report. "So a lot more of the infill opportunities that were not quite ready are now sitting in a very good position."

The organization is careful to manage expectations. "The QLINE does not ensure the success of Detroit's revival after six decades of population loss and disinvestment," says the report. "Rather, it's an important first step toward bringing efficient mass transit to a region that has repeatedly failed to agree on a plan."

That failure to agree persists. In November, voters in the Detroit metro area narrowly defeated a proposed $4.6 billion millage proposal to expand regional transit. The millage was intended to create bus rapid transit, a rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and other services.

Indeed, a primary criticism of the QLine is that it only serves the parts of Detroit that are already bouncing back, and that Woodward Avenue is already well served by bus lines.

A dozen or so members of the Motor City Freedom Riders, an organization that advocates for bus riders, protested Friday's grand opening. "I'm excited about the QLine, which is some public transit that's desperately needed," Candace Cooper told The Detroit News. "But I'm looking forward to when we have public transit for the region."

Streetcar lines can also make biking dangerous, as bicycle tires can easily be caught in the tracks. In Detroit, cyclists are being encouraged to pedal on Cass Avenue, a parallel street.

And there could be other issues. In January, according to Portland Streetcar's Bower, snow in Portland made it hard for drivers to find the curb, and they ended up repeatedly blocking the streetcar dozens of times. D.C.'s streetcar was involved in at least eight fender benders before it even launched to the public. And in Cincinnati, cars parked on the rails in front of a popular brewery have been ticketed more than a hundred times.

So if there's one lesson to be gleaned from other cities, it's that a major obstacle to Detroit's streetcar system will likely be its most famous export: the automobile.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.