Beyond city limits

The Motor City stages a streetcar-system comeback

Paul Childs; Contributing Author / August 05, 2015

After seven years of planning, construction on the M-1 RAIL project in Detroit, Mich., kicked off in July 2014.

A modern streetcar line, the M-1 RAIL was designed to circulate 3.3 miles (6.6 miles total) along Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main thoroughfare. This public transportation project is unprecedented in many ways, from its strategic partnerships, its workforce composition and vendor recruitment, to its technological capabilities. The M-1 RAIL project was conceived as a truly modern streetcar system—in design, construction and future operations.

An excavator begins clearing the space for rail placement.

An excavator begins clearing the space for rail placement.

Workers complete a concrete pour around the rail in downtown Detroit.

Workers complete a concrete pour around the rail in downtown Detroit.

Strategic partnering

The M-1 RAIL project’s 2015 construction schedule continues to be the busiest yet, with construction activities along Woodward Avenue in North End/New Center, Midtown and Downtown moving at a rapid pace. Track installation has been completed in the downtown area, with the exception of specialty track work currently occurring around Campus Martius Park, in the heart of the city. Crews also are currently installing American-made steel track in the Midtown neighborhood—just north of downtown, and work on the Penske Tech Center, which was designed with extensive community input, is in full force. 

Despite this rapid pace, the M-1 RAIL project has experienced zero recordable safety incidents over some 160,000 man hours since work began last July. This record testifies to a commitment to safety and strong strategic partnerships between the M-1 RAIL project, government and private entities.

The M-1 RAIL project has partnered with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the city of Detroit to provide lasting betterments to the city in addition to the streetcar line itself. Nearly three miles of roadway will be newly reconstructed from curb to curb. Moreover, during construction the city has installed a new drainage system and street lights along the entirety of the streetcar route.

After the project is complete, Woodward Avenue will be transformed. Work of this magnitude has not occurred in Detroit in nearly 100 years, which makes this project both important and complicated. Crews have discovered historic abandoned utilities buried deep underneath the roadway, including wooden waterlines, wooden conduit duct banks and old steam lines. Additionally, hundreds of feet of old, damaged and rusted streetcar track have been pulled from the ground, the skeletal remains of Detroit’s old streetcar system, which fell into disuse nearly 60 years ago.

In addition to government partnerships, partnerships with third-party utilities have worked to the project’s advantage. M-1 RAIL has provided the first 3-D utility map of the underground lines to partners and shared maintenance of traffic permits to reduce costs and streamline construction. While M-1 RAIL crews conduct streetcar work along Woodward Avenue, third-party crews can replace and update utilities, reducing impact to residents and business owners along the route.

Other major components of work include two freeway overpass bridge reconstructions. The streetcar route crosses two major freeways, I-94 and I-75, traveling over two overpass bridges. Both bridges will undergo a phased reconstruction in order to allow one lane of traffic to move in each direction as the construction occurs. Keeping traffic moving during this intensive construction work is crucial to minimizing the impact to those who live, work and visit the city. The bridges, originally constructed in 1967 and 1955, respectively, will be completed by the fall of 2015. Rather than a drawn-out litany of construction projects, those who live and work along the corridor only need to experience a short stretch of intensive construction. Once work on the M-1 RAIL line is complete, bridge reconstruction and third-party utility work will be completed as well, along with the complete road rebuild and new streetlight installation.

The right workforce

Having a workforce that is representative of the community in which the M-1 RAIL streetcar will operate was a priority for the M-1 RAIL team. Through a distinct and uncommon vendor solicitation process, Detroit-based companies, along with women, minority and disadvantaged business enterprises (DBE), have been awarded nearly 30% of the construction and concurrent road work for the M-1 RAIL streetcar project—an inclusion percentage that is twice the national average compared to similar projects. That amounts to nearly $40 million in contracts.

Large bid packages were broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces of work so local firms could compete with larger firms for work. Over 45 bid packages were created, and many subcontractors were hired. Stacy and Witbeck Inc. (SWI), the project’s contract manager/general contractor (CM/GC), hosted three pre-bid meetings for local subcontractors and participated in over 20 one-on-one meetings with subcontractors and sublets, attending more than 10 industry association meetings.

SWI manages both track work and road and bridge reconstruction. Michigan-based Turner Construction is building the Penske Tech Center, the design of which was directly influenced by community input given at a series of meetings to discuss the neighborhood’s vision for the new building. Thus far, Turner Construction has broken down work on the Penske Tech Center into 37 packages, and has hired 10 subcontractors and two designers.

To date, Detroiters make up approximately 41% of the M-1 RAIL workforce. In addition to the focus on hiring Detroiters, there also is a committment to keeping those who work in the corridor in business. Construction can be difficult for the small shops that dot the construction zone, so partnerships have been formed with community development organizations that help these businesses so that they may reap the benefit of the streetcar line when it is complete.

Already, new businesses have moved in along Woodward Avenue alongside those that have been operating for years. 

The promise of a fixed transit line that will activate the sidewalks in front of these businesses and develop a walkable, business-friendly climate was, from the outset, a major impetus behind this project, as a case of infrastructure spurring civic and economic development. M-1 RAIL is expected to generate over $10 billion in transit-oriented development within its first 10 years of operation.

MDOT, in partnership with M1-RAIL, footed the bill to reconstruct and resurface the streets along the rail line.

MDOT, in partnership with M1-RAIL, footed the bill to reconstruct and resurface the streets along the rail line.

State of the art

The streetcar industry has been traditionally slow to embrace technological advancements. However, the M-1 RAIL project has pushed the boundaries, using an unprecedented power system and design, which will make the Woodward Avenue route the nation’s leading system employing off-wire technology. Approximately 60% of the line will operate on battery power provided by 750-volt rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Likewise, The Penske Tech Center, which will serve as the maintenance and storage facility for the cars, will be the first of its kind to be completely off-wire.

M-1 RAIL recently announced that it has contracted American-based Brookville Equipment Corp. for the design, build, testing and safety certification of six individual streetcars to run along Woodward Avenue. Brookville specializes in the advanced off-wire technology that will make the M-1 RAIL system an exemplar of off-wire technology.

Workers on the M-1 RAIL project measure the grade of track prior to thermite welding, and then monitor the process.   Workers on the M-1 RAIL project measure the grade of track prior to thermite welding, and then monitor the process.

Workers on the M-1 RAIL project measure the grade of track prior to thermite welding, and then monitor the process.

Brookville’s strong performance in providing streetcars for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), a system with similar streetcar technology, was a key factor in the M-1 RAIL team’s decision to select Brookville as its streetcar vendor.

Other streetcar projects utilize overhead wiring for everything from vehicle propulsion to the infrastructure of their maintenance and repair sites. M-1 RAIL will minimize its impact on the aesthetics of Woodward Avenue, and the Penske Tech Center will not have the labyrinth of wires overhead that typify the maintenance and repair sites of other systems. The off-wire technology also enhances safety and enables more efficient maintenance and repair due to safe, but simpler, procedures for technicians.

M-1 RAIL will purchase six vehicles, spare parts and support services from Brookville at a total cost of $32 million. The three-piece articulated cars are expected to be 66 ft long and able to carry 125 passengers on average. They will travel up to the maximum speed on Woodward Avenue flowing with traffic—35 mph—and will stop for traffic lights. Walk-up fares are expected to be $1.50, although passes and other fare options will be available. Delivery of the six streetcars will begin in the fourth quarter of 2016.

M-1 RAIL’s streetcars will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), allowing for station-level access for pedestrians as well as persons who use mobility-assist devices such as wheelchairs. Vertical bicycle racks will be included in the design to accommodate Detroit’s burgeoning bicycle community. The vehicles also will feature Wi-Fi access for passengers and HVAC systems to facilitate the swings in Michigan’s weather.

More than transit

Unprecedented is a word that is oft-used yet often hyperbolic. In the case of M1-RAIL, it is a literal truth. This transportation initiative has pushed the boundaries on transit development, from vendor recruitment to technological application, in southeast Michigan and in the U.S. overall. 

From its conception, this project was about much more than transit. It is about cultivating a community that is better connected, advanced and tenacious in its comeback.

It is the hope of the entire M-1 RAIL project team that this project will serve as a catalyst for further regional transit growth. Reliable regional transit that goes beyond city limits, and connects communities in new and economically viable ways. R&B

About the Author

Childs is chief operating officer for M1-RAIL.

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