Rails Return to Detroit after 60 Years

Created by a public-private partnership, the first of its kind project is a catalyst for the creation of a regional transit system where all transit works together

By Natalie Caamano

In 2006, Super Bowl XL came to Detroit. On screen, it seemed like a typical game; the Steelers beat the Seahawks, the Rolling Stones performed the Halftime Show, and people turned their televisions off. In Detroit, things were different, and Roger S. Penske, chair of Super Bowl XL and the Penske Foundation, realized the city needed a change.

“The biggest difference between Detroit and other major cities hosting the Super Bowl was the lack of transit in the city,” said Dan Lijana, Communications Officer at M-1 RAIL, the non-profit created to design, construct, and operate the first streetcar on Woodward Avenue in 60 years, the QLINE. As population dwindled and disinvestment arose over the past decades, Detroit lost its previous rail system. But the Super Bowl prompted the first major transit project led and funded by private businesses and philanthropic organizations with local, state, and federal governments.

“Almost three miles of Woodward Avenue was completely redone for the first time in 100 years,” said Dan Lijana, Communications Officer at M-1 RAIL.

Penske met with Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, and Dan Gilbert, president of Quicken Loans, and they planned a line to be a catalyst for the creation of a regional transit system in Detroit, where all transit works together. M-1 RAIL (named for the M-1 Highway it would run along, or Woodward Avenue) was created and a $25 million federal TIGER grant was issued under the condition that they create a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) for Southeast Michigan.

Penske, Rapson, and Gilbert also provided funding for the project and rallied other philanthropic and corporate donations across the city, including station sponsorships. Quicken Loans, a major sponsor, secured the naming rights for the streetcar for 10 years and changed the name of the car from M-1 RAIL to QLINE. “Collectively, between the philanthropic and corporate contributions, [the funds raised are] over $100 million,” said Lijana.

Deciding on Woodward Avenue was natural. It’s “the spine of the city,” said Lijana. Stretching from Downtown Detroit to the North End, a 6.6-mile loop, the line serves 12 stops and connects the different public transit systems Detroit offers.

QLINE construction began in July of 2014 and included an ample amount of utility work, part being the overhaul of Woodward Avenue. As a result, “Almost three miles of Woodward Avenue was completely redone for the first time in 100 years,” said Lijana. There were new sidewalks, new streetlights and traffic lights, a new drainage system, and renovated roads. “It’s an infrastructure project from top to bottom,” said Lijana. In total, QLINE and its resulting work ended up being a $180 million project and construction was complete at the end of 2016.

Utility work on Woodward Avenue included new sidewalks, new streetlights and traffic lights, a new drainage system, and renovated roads.

Since then, the number of housing units in Detroit — and demand for them — has risen, new quality of life business and services are becoming available or expanding, and 6,811 Detroiters became employed in 2017 (making it one of the largest year over year gains in over a decade, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics). Change is visible in Detroit.

“Many of the storefronts around Super Bowl were boarded up because they were vacant, and, now, in addition to some of the long-time Detroit businesses, there’s a Nike store on Woodward Avenue, there’s an Under Armour store, and restaurants,” said Lijana. Many of the newer businesses planted themselves in Detroit while QLINE was under construction. “You see an enthusiasm in the neighborhood,” said Lijana. Not only are people using the streetcar as their regular transit, but the project has helped make Detroit “a more pedestrian-friendly, cyclist-friendly, and walkable city,” said Lijana. “There’s connectivity between destinations and people are walking more rather than getting in their cars.”

Though the project overall has been unique, the cars are innovative in their own ways. The three-piece, articulated cars, which hold an average of 125 passengers per car, and the stations have free Wi-Fi, are ADA accessible and climate-controlled, and have bicycle racks. A standout feature is the power source, a 750-volt lithium ion battery, which allows it to operate 80 percent off-wire, — the highest off-wire percentage of any American streetcar system — meaning fewer catenary wires run throughout the route.

QLINE is powered by a 750-volt lithium ion battery, which allows it to operate 80 percent off-wire, — the highest off-wire percentage of any American streetcar system — meaning fewer catenary wires run throughout the route.

Though nothing is planned for the expansion of QLINE, the goal is “ a true regional system,” said Lijana. With the success of QLINE, M-1 RAIL has secured a $60 million commitment with the federal government to match for the next transportation project. And given the proven success of the public-private partnership, state and federal involvement, and neighborhood feedback that built QLINE on budget and on time, we’ll be keeping our ear to the ground for what’s coming next in Detroit.

Natalie Caamano is an Editorial Assistant for American Infrastructure magazine. She may be reached at natalie@penpubinc.com.

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