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What’s the DIFT?

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Where the planned Detroit Intermodal Freight Terminal is concerned, things just keep getting more complicated. The DIFT, for those of you joining our program in progress, is the plan to expand truck-to-train freight terminals at up to four proposed sites in Detroit.

Detroit City Council now backs development at the Livernois-Junction rail yard in southwest Detroit, reversing years of opposition. Meanwhile, the southwest Detroit coalition that opposed the DIFT has splintered.

In the past year, the Michigan Department of Transportation has been conducting an environmental impact study as required by federal law. The study was completed this spring, and the four alternatives, including the option of no action, were presented to the community at public hearings in June.

The council resolution supporting the DIFT passed July 29 by a 7-0 vote. (Councilmember Alonzo Bates wasn’t present that day.)

Council had previously passed two resolutions emphatically opposing the DIFT project, citing the increased truck traffic through Detroit neighborhoods, the increased levels of pollution and resulting disease risks and the loss of homes and businesses necessary for expansion at the Livernois-Junction site.

Three years ago, Council President Pro Tem Ken Cockrel sent out a letter asking residents to write his colleagues on council to encourage a resolution opposing the DIFT.

“As somebody who has led a lot of council opposition in the past, I kind of had to hold my nose and vote for it,” Cockrel says of the current resolution.

So why did he vote to approve it? The answer doesn’t make the situation any less complicated.

Groups in southwest Detroit, which had previously opposed the DIFT as Communities for a Better Rail Alternative, have had a divergence of opinions. CBRA is no more.

“Members of community development organizations decided it was better to pursue a strategy of negotiating with MDOT,” says Kathryn Savoie, director of ACCESS’ environmental health program and a former CBRA member. “Since there’s not a project yet that seems premature. We think there are still many concerns about the way the project’s being proposed.”

Those groups that favor negotiating with MDOT — about 15 or 20 community groups, Cockrel says — include the Southwest Detroit Business Association and the Greater Corktown Development Corporation. Both have previously gone on record against the DIFT project, but recently approached council seeking a resolution backing the DIFT expansion.

Over the years, says Kelli Kavanaugh, deputy director of the Greater Corktown Development Corporation, things have changed.

“If the state of Michigan and the feds walk away right now and put no money into the site, we’re not better off,” Kavanaugh says. “And we can see how the railroads have maintained the yard over the years.”

One proposal, Kavanaugh says, would keep truck traffic off Michigan Avenue and concentrate ingress and egress at two gates, rather than eight as originally planned.

Kavanaugh admits that the air quality issue hasn’t been resolved.

“My sense from the community is that the DIFT or something like it is inevitable,” Cockrel says.

Savoie says that negotiating with MDOT for a favorable DIFT is jumping the gun. DIFT, she says, is far from a sure thing. A final decision on the $300 million-$800 million project isn’t expected until 2007.

Savoie says she plans to ask council to hold a public hearing, or at the least pass a second resolution highlighting the health concerns involved in the project. It may be an uphill battle. Between the community groups that were once a part of CBRA, Savoie says, “there’s no consensus at this point about how to deal with the DIFT.”

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