Impervious to compelling evidence that a light rail system down Woodward Ave. makes no economic sense, the state of Michigan, city of Detroit, the federal government and private partners are moving forward at breakneck speed. The premises, the reasoning and the rhetoric that accompany the planned mass transit project provide a fertile field of transit dreams and myth.
The Federal Transit Administration has kicked in $25 million for the first phase of the M-1 rail, a 3.4-mile, 12-station line from Hart Plaza to Grand Boulevard in the New Center area. Construction is expected to begin at the end of this year and cost $125 million. A second phase is expected to extend another six miles to the State Fairgrounds at Eight Mile Rd.
“Building this light rail system will create jobs for this great American city, and it will stimulate long-term economic growth by attracting investment to downtown Detroit and the New Center area,” claimed U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. However, there is no rationale that such an investment is justified.
The best case for staying clear of transportation projects built largely with federal dollars and on flawed concepts is the People Mover. Transit officials vastly overestimated ridership and underestimated construction costs on a carrier designed to distribute passengers from a larger transit system. Bold predictions turned into myth when the subway/rail idea never materialized. Now obsolete, the approximately $10 million People Mover subsidy never went away.
High capital and operating costs of a fixed rail system might be justified in high-density cities like New York or Chicago. Detroit, however, is hardly choking on traffic congestion. The dominant commuting pattern in the region is along crowded arties from low-density suburbs to low-density suburbs. Only a small fraction of the available jobs in the region are in downtown Detroit. A smaller portion yet is held by suburbanites and the transit system won’t run to the suburbs where the jobs are.
Perhaps urban planners believe that the light rail project is a perfect fit with land-use controls like Mayor Dave Bing’s Detroit Works Project. In theory, forcing large concentrations of people into a geographic area near the rail system would make it more viable. However, transit systems exist to efficiently move people from point A to point B. For policymakers to impose undesired living patterns on people in order to make their transit dreams more credible is insane.
Because most businesses and people in the region have chosen to locate, live, work and shop elsewhere, the downtown many of us grew up with and fondly remember no longer exists and cannot be created. There simply aren’t enough commuters who want to get from Hart Plaza to New Center, or vice versa.
Despite their extravagant promises, most systems like the Phoenix Valley Metro Light Rail that runs some 20 miles from midtown Phoenix to Mesa, turn out to be white elephants. Construction began in 2005 at the height of the housing boom when Arizona was one of the fastest growing states in America. The state lost thousands of residents when the boom went bust.
Since its grand opening in 2008, ridership doesn’t justify the $1.4 billion price tag or the estimated five-year, $184 million subsidy needed for its operation. Fares only cover $44 million of the cost of operation. The public subsidy is $32.73 per person traveling one way. For this price, the government could buy every rider a luxury vehicle.
It boggles the mind that pubic officials would even think about a fixed rail system considering Detroit’s huge budget deficit. Advocates apparently haven’t taken a cruise down Woodward lately, or tried to imagine the cost of added security along the high-crime corridor.
The planned M-1 light rail system can’t be justified as anything more than a make-work project. If completed, it is the taxpayer that will be taken for a costly ride.