Detroit Is Burning, But A Woodward Avenue Train Is Coming To Save The Day

Construction could start this year on the M-1 rail line on Woodward Avenue after U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Friday that the project will receive $25 million in federal funds.

The federal government released the money after the legislature in December approved the creation of the Regional Transportation Authority, which will become the umbrella organization for all transit in southeast Michigan.

It’s difficult not to welcome streetcars on Woodward. Detroit remains virtually the only American city of any importance without some sort of rail option for mass transit. And while the first phase of the M-1 project will run only 3.3 miles from E. Jefferson to Grand Boulevard, you can always dream it will be the start of a much bigger mass transit system.

But while the M-1 project is getting off the boards it’s fair to ask a question: Is it the most important idea for Detroit? Where are the plan to keep Detroiters and Detroit visitors safe?

The Woodward rail line has advanced to the front burner because its backers include business people and institutions with money and clout. They’ve already raised more than $100 million in private funds for the project.

The Woodward rail line would run up the spine of downtown and Midtown, further knitting together neighborhoods that are undergoing a well-publicized renewal.

The rail plan is another benefit to the two districts in Detroit that are flourishing in comparison with the rest of the city. It’s a continuation of a decades-long strategy of pouring money and development into a relatively small corner of Detroit.

Part of the argument for boosting downtown is that taxes and jobs will trickle out to help the rest of the city. That’s what they said about the Renaissance Center, Joe Louis Arena, the casinos and the Fox Theater.

But the trickle-out effect doesn’t work. Nowhere near enough trickles out. No matter what happens downtown, most of Detroit’s neighborhoods continue their downward spiral, losing residents and businesses.

One major reason people flee Detroit is the woeful condition of Detroit’s police, fire and EMS. As the city’s financial condition worsens, those agencies are being starved for funds despite their vital roles. Mayor Dave Bing continues to insist he has not cut public safety, but that’s not true. And there appear to be no ideas floating around to make Detroit a safer, better-protected place.

The police department is shrinking. The chief even refuses to say how many cops are on the force. Bing cut the fire department in July, leaving a fleet with 20 fewer rigs to protect the city. When things get busy, response slows to dangerous levels. But things continue to burn.

Early Sunday morning was a busy time. At about 3 a.m., a fire broke out in the basement of an 85-year-old woman’s home in the 19900 block of Oakfield, near the Southfield Freeway and 8 Mile Road.

The closest available rig that was able to put water on the fire was Engine Co. 33. It is stationed at the other end of the city -- on Lawndale and W. Fort in southwest Detroit – 17 miles away.

It took 22 minutes for Engine 33 to reach the blaze. By that time, according to a fire fighter on the scene, “the house was fully involved” in flames. The house next door, also occupied, would have been a goner, too, but the wind was blowing the other way.

Many engines that the Bing administration has taken out of service would have been closer. They might have saved the woman’s home.

No one was hurt Sunday morning. But it’s only a matter of time before Bing has a real tragedy on his hands.

Detroit rigs often show up late for fires. It’s not the firefighters’ fault. It’s the fault of a system in which people put a greater value on running a train up Woodward than on protecting Detroiters and their property.

Note: The fire response incident was first reported by Steve Neavling on Motor City Muckraker.

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