Terminal questions 

Where is the driving force to expand a train and truck freight facility in southwest Detroit coming from?

Certainly it’s not the area’s residents, most of whom are predictably opposed to the increased noise and pollution that would accompany expansion of the existing terminal.

If you believe the Michigan Department of Transportation, the push is being made by the railroads that own the land and the Big Three automakers that would be key users of the facility.

But if you scratch beneath the surface, it quickly becomes apparent that — although the state denies it — the primary proponent of the project is MDOT itself.

For years, Karen Kavanaugh has been hearing talk of expanding a southwest Detroit train- and truck-shipping yard from 580 acres to 850 acres (and adding another 450 acres for a buffer zone). If the plan materializes, the neighborhood would likely lose 180 homes and businesses and see an increase in truck traffic, noise and pollution, says the land-use specialist with the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

Kavanaugh, who opposes the development, doubts that it will get off the ground since the railroad companies that own the property have shown little interest in pursuing expansion. And the Big Three automakers, which allegedly back the plan, have only lukewarm enthusiasm for it. That contention is bolstered by statements provided to Metro Times by representatives of the railroads and automakers.

Chugging along

Since the early 1990s, MDOT, businesses and local governments have kicked around the idea of building a central shipping yard or “intermodal freight terminal” in southeast Michigan where trucks and trains would work together. For the most part trucks and trains compete for delivery business, but many intermodal terminals are cropping up around the country and state as the need to move goods increases because of reduced barriers to international trade and other economic factors.

Currently, there are nine small terminals scattered about southeast Michigan. But most of these facilities are at or nearing capacity, and the railroads need more to meet shipping demands, according to MDOT.

In 1997, MDOT received $18 million in federal funds to study the issue, eventually settling on the southwest Detroit area that surrounds and includes the Livernois-Junction Yards and borders east Dearborn. The rail lines, access to major highways and the mostly industrial-zoned property make it an ideal location, says Ari Adler, MDOT communications director.

In March, the transportation department began taking a closer look at the area and met with area residents and business owners to obtain their input. A couple business owners said they welcomed the development, hoping that it would generate jobs in the area, but many other folks weren’t pleased.

At a meeting last spring, residents and community leaders pelted MDOT with questions and criticisms. Some said they fear that more rail lines in the area would fragment the neighborhood. Others complained that southwest Detroit is already inundated with industrial pollution and noise.

Despite the protest Greg Bowens, spokesman for Mayor Dennis Archer, says the new terminal will provide a much-needed economic boost to the city.

“Having that kind of station there also allows us to attract more businesses because we can demonstrate that Detroit is the hub of shipping activity.”

The facility, adds Bowens, will also lead to an increase in fuel taxes and fees collected on weight limits.

Neighborhood threat

Anne Marie Lewis stands on her front porch on a cool evening amid the roar of cars and the occasional big truck rolling down Springwells past her large brick home. As loud as it is now, she says, the noise is worse during the day when 18-wheelers constantly exit onto her street from I-75.

“It’s one after the other,” says Lewis.

But if the train-shipping yard expands, the traffic, noise and pollution will only increase in a low-income neighborhood already labeled as the most polluted in Detroit.

The area will see an increase of 16,000 truck trips a day by 2025 if the four terminals are built; an increase from 2,000 daily trips now, according to MDOT.

Lewis, 65, is not the only one concerned her neighborhood will become a dumping ground for southeast Michigan’s truck traffic. Businesses, churches, and other neighborhood groups formed “Communities for a Better Rail Alternative” to fight the expansion.

“If they expand to 1,300 acres, you may as well kiss many of these neighborhoods goodbye,” says Kavanaugh, who helped organize the coalition. She says that the group wants a plan that not only improves the transportation of freight but people, while preserving a growing Detroit neighborhood where dozens of businesses have recently opened, including restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries. “They want to do this by tearing down the only growing neighborhood in Detroit,” says Kavanaugh.

Who’s driving this train?

If MDOT drops the project, Adler says that the railroad companies, which need more freight terminals, will proceed with the project anyway.

“It’s going to happen from the railroad companies’ standpoint. What is not known at this point, is it something the government will invest in,” he says.

Adler also contends that if the transportation department is not involved it could be bad news for the neighborhoods. The government agency is legally mandated to seek public input; the railroads are not.

But are the railroads that own the property really that gung-ho on the project? If you listen closely to what they have to say, it doesn’t sound that way.

“The state has been looking at it off and on for some time and we’re interested enough to keep plugged in,” says Randy Marsh, Canadian Pacific Rail communications specialist. “We think it would have great potential to take truck traffic off the road.”

Norfolk Southern says that it hopes to expand, but not any time soon.

CSX Transportation says it does not plan to expand at all. “We really can’t afford to do it,” says Bob Sullivan, CSX Transportation spokesperson. “If there is going to be growth, it’s going to be somewhat more modest than what is envisioned there.”

And what about the Big Three automakers, who would be one of the facility’s biggest users?

Adler provided Metro Times a July 2000 letter signed by the major automakers which says that they “are prepared to make necessary business commitments” to the expansion. However, representatives seemed less than enthusiastic when they recently spoke to Metro Times.

“It is more of a wait-and-see whether it is built and how we may be able to use it and improve the way we do business,” says David Barnas, General Motors media relations manager.

“Anything that supports moving goods in an efficient manner, we support. But this terminal we would use very little,” because we already have efficient transport systems, says Mike Parris, Ford Motor Company public affairs manager.

A DaimlerChrysler spokesperson, who asked not to be identified, says that the company is supportive of the expansion, but added that the facility would need to be cost-effective and have a state-of-the-art delivery-tracking system that complements the auto company’s.

So why is MDOT promoting the freight terminal when those who might use it are only mildly interested?

Michael Belzer, Wayne State associate professor in the Center for Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs department, suspects that funding is driving the project. He says that with the increase in truck traffic around the country, millions of federal dollars are available to build intermodal terminals to reduce truck traffic. MDOT may be trying to get its share for Michigan. And by rerouting most truck traffic to one area like southwest Detroit, the state will spend less money repairing roads.

“It might, on some level, be better for the state, but not Detroit,” says Belzer.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. E-mail amullen@metrotimes.com

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