Realistically, when will Detroit build BRT?

When one observes all the energy pouring into the movement to establish modern transit for metro Detroit, it is natural to ask: when will the new system be up and running? 

The answer from local leadership frequently signals that, on matters of public transportation, metro Motor City is at once highly ambitious and overwhelmingly unrealistic. Gotta wonder if those tendencies help sabotage success.

In the spring of 2008 I stood in the parking lot of the Revival Tabernacle Church on Woodward Avenue chatting with a well-known local transit consultant. We were leaving an open house for the Detroit Options for Growth Study. The initiative, he confidently stated, would have several miles of light rail built and operating on Woodward in early 2010 - just two short years.

That seemed a high aspiration. Salt Lake City hustled to establish its first light rail line in the wake of winning the bid to host the 2002 Olympics. The project - backed by a decade of discussion and planning - still required nearly four years to complete.

So, back in Detroit, it came as no surprise that Mayor Bing wasn't cutting the ribbon on a new Woodward rail line in early 2010. Instead, he confidently pronounced "light rail will soon be available" in his State of the City.

Two years later discussion has turned from light rail to streetcar. Leaders of the now-called M1 Rail group have yet to present the plan to fund, build and operate the urban circulator. Yet the CEO of the group says they expect to break ground by the end of 2012.

That's certainly a stretch goal, especially if the project depends on federal funding. Cincinnati for example first approved a transportation plan calling for downtown streetcar in 2004. But it would take nearly 8 years for the city to break ground on the project.

The latest big idea for modern transit in metro Detroit is 110 miles of 'rolling rapid transit' that would connect Detroit, its expansive suburbs and Ann Arbor ... all for less than $500 million. The expectation - if press reports are accurate - is the system can be built within three years.

Such an accelerated schedule will be difficult to achieve. The City of Cleveland chose BRT for the Euclid corridor in 1995, began project design in 1997, secured federal approval in 2002, started construction in 2005 and cut the ribbon in 2008. In other words, more than 13 years (many more if you count the early years of dialogue and study) to build a BRT line of approximately 7 miles (a fraction of what Detroit envisions). This for a transit authority with a proven record of accomplishment, including the construction of several light rail lines.

Which brings us to step one for Detroit: establish a proper regional transit authority. Michigan's Senate Transportation Subcommittee today holds a public hearing on proposed legislation to do so. Still it's uncertain whether the collective will exists to act.

But let's assume they do, and the region finally establishes a modern governance structure to study, plan, design, fund, build and operate a successful public transportation system. And let's assume leadership unites behind the idea of the proposed 'rolling rapid transit.' Let's even assume, hopefully, that voters in the region agree to fund it. When realistically will the system - or at least its first critical piece - be ready to ride?

My prediction: within six years. By the end of 2018 is perhaps an ambitious yet attainable goal. Difficult to see how it could happen sooner.