Shift in QLINE management could bring streetcar expansion
Detroit’s limited streetcar system could come under management by a public regional transportation organization, setting the stage for more investment and possible expansion of the QLINE.
The Regional Transportation Authority of Southeast Michigan was presented Thursday with a proposal to acquire the assets of the QLINE from M-1 RAIL, a nonprofit organization formed in 2007. Officials with M-1 RAIL said handing off the streetcar was always intended and is specifically laid out in legislation allowing the transfer to take place in 2024. RTA Executive Director Ben Stupka said conversations became more serious within the last four months, leading to Thursday’s public announcement.
“We’re not taking it over and then all of a sudden the QLINE is going to expand, but it definitely reinvigorates (the conversation on) how we use this asset as a catalyst,” Stupka said. “Whether it be expanding service, connecting bus rapid-transit, it puts that conversation back at the top.”
Stupka said the RTA Board of Directors is starting a process to consider the financial, legal and service implications of taking control of the QLINE without imposing costs on taxpayers. If approved through a vote of the RTA board, all frontline employees working for M-1 RAIL would transition to the RTA, current labor agreements would remain in place and day-to-day operations would largely continue unchanged in the short-term.
One major difference of RTA management, according to an M-1 RAIL spokesperson, is the ability to pull in more funding. In the hands of a public entity, the QLINE becomes eligible for state transit operating assistance, capital match funding from the Michigan Department of Transportation and federal funding.
“QLINE is an asset that was always envisioned as one piece of a larger, connected regional transit system,” M-1 RAIL President Lisa Nuszkowski said in a statement. “Now is the time to make this transition. Performance has never been better. Ridership is approaching 1 million for the year, and the system’s finances are sustainable over the long-term.”
The announcement comes amid growing recognition among state officials that transit amenities in Michigan’s metro areas are lagging behind peers in other states.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s population growth commission called for expanding public transportation networks led by regional authorities like the RTA. A Thursday report identified that Michigan’s downtowns “lack the amenities, transit options, and housing stock that young people desire.”
Hilary Doe, Michigan’s first chief growth officer and a Detroit eastside resident, said accessible public transit is a key driver of population gains in other states. A call for more regional partnerships was an important piece of the recommendations, she said. Longtime observers of Michigan’s population troubles said the new report offers a clear acknowledgement of public transit’s role in creating attractive cities.
“This is the first report I can remember that made transit a priority,” said Lou Glazer, president of nonprofit Michigan Future Inc. and an advisor to several Michigan governors on population growth strategies. “It says you have to have great transit to attract young people.”
The QLINE has arguably struggled to provide “great transit,” but service is improving. Since 2017, it has operated along 3.3 miles of Woodward Avenue between downtown and New Center. Ridership bounced back from pandemic lows, reaching 943,940 riders as of Dec. 10. That’s up 48% from 2022 and 17% from 2019.
M-1 Rail reported that 70% of streetcars arrived within 15 minutes this year, an all-time high, while on-time performance hit 80%.
Billionaire Dan Gilbert, a financial backer of the QLINE, raised eyebrows in November when he called for more federal investment in mass transit systems. Gilbert said the QLINE system was partly built “to prove to the feds we can get something done.” He said regional transportation authorities are needed to make a strong pitch for federal funding.
“I’m always going to be encouraged to see a leader like Dan Gilbert in our business community say that,” Stupka said. It’s another sign of the ball rolling in the right direction.”
Megan Owens is executive director of Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit advocacy organization. She said the QLINE is unlikely to be a major part of a regional transportation strategy. Part of the problem is the decision to run the streetcar along the curb, a design Gilbert advocated for.
“Because of the way the QLINE was designed, there’s only so much that can be done,” Owens said. “An extension of it along Jefferson or Michigan Avenue still has some potential, especially recognizing its role as an economic development tool. It was really designed for economic development purposes.”
Stupka said creating dedicated lanes for the QLINE could help address the issue, but others question whether the current configuration can create the reliability needed to be a true transit system. Stupka said conversations on possible expansion routes are early, but Glazer had a few ideas.
“Transit needs to be reasonably rapid and frequent, and it’s neither,” Glazer said. “It is worth connecting Henry Ford Hospital, downtown and Corktown. If you wanted a spur that goes out on Jefferson to Belle Isle, you could do that too. You’d want to coordinate it with substantially increasing housing density along the line. It’s the single best way of developing dense neighborhoods, which the city desperately needs.”
Rides are free through 2039 thanks to an $85 million subsidy of Michigan hotel and liquor taxes approved by the state Legislature last year. Stupka said he’s confident that the value of that investment will be proven enough for renewal after 2039.
“I don’t see that going away as a long-term option,” Stupka said.
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