Skip to comments.Is Detroit's New Light Rail Line America's Greatest Boondoggle?
Posted on 07/25/2014 10:28:15 AM PDT by 1rudeboy
A $137 million three-mile train is coming to a nearly deserted avenue in a bankrupt city.
Growing up in the 1940s, Robert Fogelson remembers banging on the typewriter and peering out the window at his fathers office in a Manhattan skyscraper. Then "[my dad] would take us for lunch to a nearby Schrafts, a chain of restaurants that was popular with housewives like my mother, who regularly went downtown to shop to socialize ...or to meet my father for a play or a movie." Fogelson hadnt decided yet what he would do with his life, "[b]ut I took it for granted," he writes, whatever I did, I would do downtown."
As much a concept as a physical location, "downtown" was "the most powerful and widely recognized symbol of the American industrial metropolis," wrote historian Sam Bass Warner Jr., and it evokes sentimentality even in those of us who grew up long after flagship stores and corporate headquarters had relocated to the outskirts, leaving urban commercial districts empty and decrepit. Tourists still pack Times Square in New York City, where they can revel in a Disneyland-like recreation of downtowns bright lights and crowded sidewalks. Fogelson never became a denizen of a towering skyscraper; hes an urban historian at MIT and the author of Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, an examination of how center cities have shaped pubic policy.
Fogelsons story ends in the middle of the last century, but downtowns allure is an ongoing distraction from whats actually important for the health of cities. It explains in part the twisted logic behind one of the most confounding urban development projects of our time, a $137 million 3.3-mile light rail line that breaks ground in Detroit next week. How else could sane people think a bankrupt city should build a wildly expensive rail line on a partially deserted avenue in a neighborhood awash in cheap parking?
Let's consider what the new light rail line will mean for the people who live and work in the Motor City. Today, the suburbanites who commute to downtown Detroit might be frustrated by their limited lunch optionsvacant storefronts dont facilitate much culinary varietybut at least they get to enjoy a congestion-free drive to the office. Under-utilized lots and garages occupy almost 40 percent of the land in downtown Detroit, so the walk from the car to the cube takes just a few minutes.
What if Dan Gilbert, the billionaire co-founder of Quicken Loans and the puppet master behind so many recent efforts to revitalize downtown Detroit, were to mandate that his employees utilize the new light rail line in their daily commutes after it opens in 2016? (Gilbert relocated Quicken's headquarters to downtown Detroit four years ago to inject life into the neighborhood.) That would mean rather than drive straight to the office theyd have to drive within three miles of the office, park their cars in a lot somewhere along Woodward Avenue, wait 7-10 minutes for a train to come, and hand over $1.50 for the inconvenience.
How will the light rail line serve the 26 percent of Detroit households that dont own cars and depend on the citys dreadful bus service? Detroit has a 139-square mile footprint, but the light rail line will serve only those travelers who happen to be going from one spot to another along one three-mile stretch on Woodward. Buses, on the other hand, have the capacity to weave through neighborhoods, giving commuters what they most desire, which is to move as quickly as possible from one location to another with the least amount of hassle. Buses are also orders of magnitude cheaper to operate and maintain, which is why Detroit shut down its last street rail line in 1956, when the citys population was almost three times its current size.
In a 2010 interview with Reason TV, Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff compared the light rail line to building swimming pools in a city that has so many broken ambulances that calling 911 is like scheduling an appointment with a cable repairman. If every train car were to end up packed with riders, the light rail lines proposed $1.50 fare still wouldnt come close to paying the system's operating expenses, so its destined to become yet another drain on taxpayersjust like downtown Detroits existing rail line, the "People Mover, a.k.a. the horizontal elevator to nowhere, which has been burning city cash running empty rail cars in a three-mile loop since it opened in 1987.
Still, the federal government saw fit to hand over $41 million in subsidies to build more light rail in Detroit (thats $25 million in cash and $16 million through a tax gimmick). The Detroit News editorial page recently applauded the project, calling the federal commitment pocket change compared to what the government spends overall on infrastructure. Tell that to the public sector retirees facing a haircut on their pension benefits; in a city embroiled in chapter 9 bankruptcy, every dollar counts. Detroit is so cash strapped it's now cutting off water service to scofflaw elderly residents. (Light rails backers recently begged the feds for an additional $12 million in funding; the money hasnt materialized yet, but theyre pushing ahead with the project anyway.)
Detroits light rail line could be written off as a typical government pork fest, if only a large share of the construction funds werent coming from private sources. The biggest contributor besides the federal government is the nonprofit Kresge Foundation, which has pledged about $35 million. A key figure behind the project is Gilbert, a downtown nostalgic extraordinaire. Hanging in his offices, there's a 1917 photo depicting downtown Detroit as a dreamy wonderland, with pristine streets, Model Ts, ladies promenading in fine dresses, businessmen in top hats, and, of course, shinny rail cars running down Woodward. In 1917, Detroit was a magnet for the nations brightest mindsthe Silicon Valley of its dayand Gilbert wants to turn back time. Hes buying up empty office buildings on a bet that downtown can become a linchpin for the citys revival.
"'People my age, we would hear from our parents and grandparents who were raised in Detroit about how great this city was, from 1900 to the 60s,' Gilbert told The New York Times last year. "'As I started visiting [other] great American cities, it hit meman, how did we blow this so badly?'"
Gilbert's downtown investments are harmless as long as hes spending his own money, but the light rail line is mostly a play to leverage the public dollars required to fund its operations over the long term. Gilbert and Rip Rapson, the president and CEO of Kresge, would do a lot more good using the same money to replace Detroits aging bus fleet, which is an everyday drag on the quality of life in Detroit. (Lifting the citys ban on private jitneys would be even more fruitful.)
But bus philanthropy wouldn't yield any downtown monuments or splashy groundbreaking ceremonies, like the one I expect well be subjected to next week, including all the tiresome bromides about the citys comeback. Detroits best hope lies with concerned citizens and entrepreneurs making less heralded investments in the city's residential neighborhoods, like those featured in "Anarchy in Detroit," Zach Weissmuellers recent Reason TV series. Public dollars should focus exclusively on improving core services, such as helping the Detroit police build on its recent success in crime reduction.
Light rail is destined to become another monument in Detroits graveyard of failed renewal projects. It's time to cede our downtown nostalgia to the theme park operators.
They haven’t paid attention to the ‘high speed rail’ to nowhere in California
The whole point of these travesties is NOT to move people around, but to spend taxpayer money to reward campaign contributors and secure public works jobs to buy votes. Any actual benefit is accidental and unplanned.
At $46 million per mile, it certainly isn’t the most money spent on light rail in the country in terms of capital cost; AFAIK, that dubious honor belongs to the Newark NJ light rail extension, at $275 million (for one mile) in 2016 dollars. (Even though there’s an underground segment, the tunnels were already there from the time of the Cedar Street Subway.)
This is a great example of how the massive state just lumbers along without regard to the reality of its citizens’ situation. The city is bankrupt and parking is readily available, yet the state churns out yet another spending project. The project’s utility isn’t to relieve congestion or make the transportation system better. Its utility is that without it, a lot of city bureaucrats would have nothing to do and could not justify their existence on the public payroll. Until someone kills off these departments in their entirety, the workers will churn out spending projects whether they are necessary or not.
On top of all that, “light rail” systems have the “proof-of-payment” fare collection system, where you buy a ticket and ride, and sometimes there will be a fare inspector on board and sometimes not, so there’s a lot of fare evasion, never mind some of the lowest fare recovery ratios around, quite often well under 10 percent.
John Frum Thinking. If we build it they will come only works in the movies.
They should concentrate on currently needed infrastructure like the International trade crossing bridge. As the economy grows as a result of that, then they can look at whether they need light rail.
Until them, privately owned bus companies like the Detroit Bus company are the way to go.
Sorry; make that 2014 dollars. I don’t have an inflation calculator that goes two years into the future :)
The people mover is only some 7% rider funded with taxpayers picking up the other 93%.
There is a small amount of irony in the fact that, if I move to the area of Detroit I like the most (Corktown), I’ll be able to ride this into the city when my car gets stolen. ;)
Just laying in new infrastructure for the soon to come booming resurgence of Detroit.. Or sumthin’.
“America’s Greatest Boondoggle?”
I dunno, here in Jacksonville Fl. where we have a sports complex consisting of an NFL stadium, an excellent minor league baseball park and a fairly new and very nice 15,000 seat indoor arena all within walking distance of each other we also have a people mover that cost millions and DOES NOT go to any of those venues...........Never been able to understand that one.
“A $137 million three-mile train is coming to a nearly deserted avenue in a bankrupt city.”
Wow! We have one of those here in Tucson! In fact the ribbon cutting is scheduled for today along with street closures in the business district to accommodate the ceremonies today and tomorrow! In addition they expect a large number of people to take occasion to ride for free Saturday and Sunday as part of the Grand Opening of the line.
Mahvelous darling. Mahvelous.
Blight Rail allows tourists to view the ruins of Detroit.
Don’t think I’d pick DBC if I really had to ride the bus there, honestly . . .
Funny thing is, when politicians were dismantling streetcar systems, they were selling the whole “privatization” angle versus power company “monopolies” running the streetcars (in many, but not all cases). But not long after that, the cities (and the state in some cases, e.g. New Jersey) took over the bus systems, which was worse than the prior setup.
The people mover still works? I thought it was abandoned in the 1990’s.
You would rather ride the city buses?
Ugh. Athens, Greece imitates 1970s/1980s NYC subway.