The original purpose of the Detroit People Mover was to be the final stage of a regional mass transit rail system. The immediate challenge to the city was to keep operating costs from being a financial drain on the public purse.
From the beginning, however, the downtown monument was snake bit. Its positive public relations image has been offset by such an enormous liability, the People Mover will be mostly remembered for its losses.
The elevated train opened its doors to the public in 1987 amid great expectations and cost overruns. When completed, the costs were seven times the original $30 million estimate.
Federal transit officials originally projected the train would carry 71,000 passengers per day. That was lowered to 35,000 and later to 10,000 to 15,000 a day based on a 50-cent fare that was supposed to cover maintenance costs and payroll. As the novelty of the $200.3-million train wore off, ridership dropped precipitously. A taxpayer subsidy was required to keep it on track, which the City Council just cut by $1 million to $3.4 million.
The 50-cent fare never generated more than a measly percentage of the annual operating budget despite the best efforts of the city to heighten public awareness of its benefits through aggressive ad and promotional campaigns.
For more than two decades, city officials believed that hiking the fare would cause an even lower ridership drop. That makes the council’s recent approval of a 25-cent fee increase a real head scratcher.
It was also sold as a mechanism to stimulate growth along its 2.9-mile track. Commuters into downtown would disembark from the light-rail system to be distributed by the elevated train to various businesses, amenities and activities. Conspicuously absent, however, are signs of new retail or substantial business along its route.
City planners continue to believe that the People Mover can complement a larger regional rail system. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that a more extensive rail system makes sense. A light rail system in and out of Detroit ignores the reality that the suburbs are where the great majority of jobs and commuters are located.
Most cities with rail systems are burdened with an incredibly expensive form of transportation. Since most were built in response to federal subsidies and not actual need, they tend to fall far short of expectations.
Detroit too is prepared to turn a blind eye to the trade-off between long-term benefits from the tax dollars to build the system and the growing subsidies required to operate it. A convincing case has yet to be made that it would generate anything other than construction jobs.
Shutting down the People Mover was once unthinkable. That view is no longer valid for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that it is inadequately designed to function as a passenger distribution system.
In 1989, a report by the blue-ribbon Metropolitan Transit Development Committee determined that it was obsolete and urged that any future light rail system bypass the People Mover and feed directly into the downtown area.
Detroit is pretty much stuck with a system too expensive to demolish or to operate profitably. But the balance between the public good and the public cost is still a crucial part of the debate.
There are few reasons to continue subsidizing the costly, antiquated and underutilized mini-transit system that fails to satisfy a pubic need. Propping it up means that fewer dollars are available for more essential services.
Detroit’s crime problem, for example, is responsible for much of the social and economic decline. Yet, city officials thoughtlessly persist in disinvesting in police and fire personnel while investing in a train without a destination or a future.
As long as crime is a life and death issue, the best investment would be for Detroit to hire more cops and shut the People Mover down.