A coalition of more than 100 local Detroit businesses almost blew a gasket after the planned $500 million light-rail line up Woodward Avenue was scrapped. The Downtown Detroit Partnership felt its voice should have been heard prior to the decision to go with a rapid-transit regional bus system.
The protest by the business community notwithstanding, long-haul buses make a lot more sense than light rail. But if local investors really believe that a light rail system can be built economically, operated efficiently and pay for itself, there’s nothing preventing them from putting their own money on the line. Even better, make the case for private, unsubsidized buses to provide transit service in the region.
Gov. Rick Snyder, Mayor Dave Bing and U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood belatedly but wisely decided to examine regional transportation needs more creatively than in the past. After cooler heads prevailed and hardliners lessened their demands and lowered expectations, policymakers opted for a 34-station, four-line rapid bus system. Moving forward with light rail would have ignored glaring fiscal uncertainties and revenue shortfalls in the city.
The first stretch of tracks of the light rail, from Hart Plaza to the New Center area, was supposed to be underwritten by a $100 million investment from private investors. Detroit however, couldn’t come up with the matching funds or operational costs once the system was built. The federal government did the sensible thing by pulling its financial support for a project that was dead-ended from inception.
The “smarter” idea to make buses the workhorses of public transit is a good start. But it too has flaws. Transit services should be market driven, flexible and responsive to changing customer needs. The proposed long-haul buses with fixed schedules and fixed routes are not responsive to spontaneous rider requests.
This change in transportation policy is no guarantee that a single, regional transportation system will become part of the tri-county area’s future. The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) and Detroit’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) are money-losers. Both systems are saddled with excessive costs from maintaining overlapping routes.
Shielded from market forces by massive tax subsidies, the two bus systems indulge in petty turf wars. Because each is inclined – for various reasons — to jealously guard its monopoly status, merger is a far-flung prospect. Together they represent the most glaring example of wasted public transportation resources since the People Mover.
The efficient, cost-effectively movement of people is vital for passengers and for the business that create the region’s wealth. Our ability to travel is a measure of our quality of life and the competiveness of our economy. That doesn’t mean the region needs one ineffective and unaffordable merged monopoly. A fresh mix of cooperation, competition and innovation may go further in designing an efficient transit system that meets commuter and business needs.
While business interests have generally supported more integrated regional transit– light rail and buses — taxpayers are primarily concerned with commuting between suburbs, rather than trying to connect the suburbs and the central city by rail.
The preferred way to address the region’s transportation needs is to eliminate barriers to private, unsubsidized services such as minivans, short-haul bus lines and competitive contracting for public transit. Private buses present opportunities for local entrepreneurs to create jobs and contribute to the tax base.
Where the private market can provide a public service, it should be allowed to do so. Detroit investors, if they insist, can still have their train by financing and building it with private dollars. That’s a no-brainer if they truly believe their system will both move people to where they want to go and also turn a profit.
Keep the government out of the formula. Big-outlays of public funds in pursuit of unrealistic transit dreams will only further convince the few businesses still willing to invest that Detroit is a risky proposition.