Kresge’s Rapson Not Amused by Detroit’s Light Rail Choice, but Foundation Still “Committed”

Rapson shows an eye for symbolism. Wall Street Journal
Rapson shows an eye for symbolism. Wall Street Journal

Just as Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and the Federal Transit Administration signed off on a compromise center-running light rail plan last week, M1 Rail partner and Kresge Foundation head Rip Rapson made his displeasure clear in the most public of ways. On July 2, one day after the final plan for the line was officially published, Rapson’s defiant visage appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal – standing in the middle of Woodward, no less, as if daring the trains to run him down. Still, according to an MLive report today, a Rapson deputy suggests the foundation remains committed to funding the line.

The Journal article focused on Rapson’s frustration with Mayor Bing’s handling of the Detroit Works Project, but called the light rail dispute “the latest flare-up.” Rapson complains the City didn’t notify him and other private investors before signing an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration for the center-running line, though the City’s Norm White says otherwise. According to the Journal, Rapson “began to rethink Kresge’s funding” as a result, even though the City consented to give M1 all five Midtown light rail stations it sought, rather than the two its own Department of Transportation had called for. From the article:

“Are we going to pull our money out? We won’t just because we’re annoyed,” [Rapson] said, adding that the parties were discussing the issue. He feels good about his bargaining position. “Everyone knows that Kresge is the do or die for the line.”

The city, of course, has been in a delicate dance with M1 Rail for more than a year now. According to one individual familiar with the process, Rapson put his foot down and flatly refused to put up money for a center-running rail line at a meeting in the Renaissance Center some months ago. Even if he was determined to dig in his heels, it seems unlikely that the City would have moved forward with the center-running alignment had they not received support, however grudging, from most of Rapson’s fellows at M1. Never a very cohesive bunch, the group hadn’t met in many months as of this spring. It hasn’t always bothered to field reporters’ inquiries, and while both President Matt Cullen and Vice-Chair Dan Gilbert did make some recent remarks favoring the curbside option in recent weeks, the group had no comment on the final choice.

Kresge’s $35 million pledge to the light rail system wasn’t insubstantial. Yet while his stand may play well to Journal readers, Rapson probably couldn’t afford to play the spoiler at this stage. For the head of a major foundation pledged to the “promotion of human progress” and a board member of the influential Living Cities collaborative, threatening to pull the plug on account of a design choice supported by the Federal Transit Administration, transportation advocates, and 91% of the general public just doesn’t look good for the house.

We’re still hopeful that when the rail line opens, Rapson may come around to seeing that center-running rail might have been best for Woodward all along.