Detroit’s bus system is woefully out of date and plagued by decades of parts shortages, vehicle maintenance and labor problems, declining ridership and mounting complaints. Passengers are stranded for hours when buses don’t run on time or often enough. The working poor are severely limited in their ability to get to their job.
A city that can’t keep its buses running on time can’t be expected to build, efficiently manage and operate a multi-million light rail system. But Mayor Dave Bing is forging ahead with plans to construct such a system down Woodward Ave. It will travel along a thoroughfare to nowhere.
Whether due to sophisticated work stoppages or lack of funds, incentives for DDOT employees to do better are hard to come by. A perennial money loser, there is little potential to make the decrepit bus system more efficient without tremendous overlays.
Because DDOT is crippled by pension and other structural costs, it explains in part why Detroit is one of only a few big cities yet to merge its bus operation into a regional system. But then, SMART, the suburban bus system, suffers from many of the same management problems.
This historical backdrop makes the planned light rail route a wasteful pursuit. However, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who recently came to town to glorify the project slated to end just south of Eight Mile Rd., appeared to ignore the reality.
“It holds enormous promise,” said LaHood, adding, “It will become the anchor for a lot of planning and a lot of discussion about the regional approach to transportation. It will create jobs. It will create a new choice of transportation.”
LaHood’s premise, reasoning and rhetoric are false. First, there is a need for a well-run, efficient bus system in the city and the suburbs. But there is no mass transit need crying out for a solution in Detroit.
In order for light rail to justify its enormous capital expenditure and high operating costs it would have to connect the originations and destinations of large numbers of riders to thriving business and job centers. Detroit doesn’t come close to traffic congestion or gridlock. The city is beginning to show signs of life through subsidized businesses moving employees to the central city. But there is no evidence it has become a magnet for job creators without incentives.
The rationale that the investment will eventually justify itself by promoting high-density developments near stations doesn’t hold up either. The landscape beneath the People Mover destroys that fallacy.
Rail systems don’t come close to breaking even, even when capital costs are factored out. DDOT and the People Mover are already heavily subsidized and Detroit is likely to incur even larger operating deficits when a light rail is added to the commuting scheme and fails to attract enough riders. Even more nonsensical is that it would duplicate SMART and DDOT routes.
Another false promise is that mass transit will connect the city’s unemployed with jobs in the suburbs. There may be good reasons for a mass transit system, but the contention that jobless Detroiters could find work outside the city if they could commute to where the jobs are isn’t one of them.
Admittedly, there are people who are disconnected from the low-skilled manufacturing and service jobs that shifted sharply away from the city to the suburbs. There also is evidence that the reason many Detroiters remain locked in economic subordination has more to do with lack of skills among the labor force than a lack of transportation. It makes no sense to spend millions for a rail system that begins and ends in the city limits and serves no real commuter needs.
To make large public investments in a fixed-rail system is to pursue an economic and policy agenda without merit. It is destined to be another urban status symbol erected amidst severe infrastructure and population decline. It will have as much value in solving the city’s transit needs as the dysfunctional, money-losing bus system.