Business supporters of the Detroit M-1 rail project are relentless in their pursuit of more federal dollars from the U.S. Transportation Department for a ground-level train traveling up Woodward Avenue to the New Center area. For a city with Detroit’s problems, however, to proceed with such a plan smacks of the grandiose. No matter how the numbers are cooked, this “dream” train would be a nightmarish investment of taxpayer dollars.
Two years ago, tranportation officials awarded the city $25 million for a 9.3-mile $500 million light rail project that was to travel up Woodward to Eight Mile. However, last December, the department reallocated that grant to a more sensible rapid bus system. M-1 subsequently scaled back its plan from the 8 Mile Rd. destination to the New Center stop.
But light rail advocates haven’t given up trying to convince federal officials the modified light rail transit system is needed, affordable and deserving of that $25 million. The new estimated cost for the system is $137 million –$37 million higher than the original $100 million estimate.
Bold pronouncements notwithstanding, there’s no evidence that M-1 rail advocates will be able to keep operating expenses within the projected $5.1 million. They are willing to cover the cost for up to 10 years, but there’s a good chance that the city’s subsidy will ultimately become a big a drain on the public pocketbook somewhere down the road. Detroit, after all is a city with a rapidly shrinking population and tax base that will be left holding the bag after the M-1 group moves on.people mover cllip
Backers also choose to ignore the fact that tens of millions in taxpayer dollars have already been expended in federal engineering, environmental and feasibility studies over the last 30 years in an effort to get either a city subway or rapid transit system on track.
The group might have a better case if their ridership claims were believable. M-1 contends it wiill generate $2.6 million a year by charging $1.50 a ride and attrack 1.8 million riders in its first year of operation. The system would break even by 2021. Ridership is expected increase to 3 million by 2035.
This too is likely a gross overstatment. Promoters made similar claims about the People Mover, which travels around an abbreviated track mostly empty every day. High capital and operating costs of fixed rail might be justified in a high density city like New York, Chicago or Washington, D.C. Detroit, however, does not have a strong downtown core.
The experience across America reveals that public transit systems have proved far more costly than initially anticipated and are notorious for failing to deliver on promised results. Most urban transit projects funded since the 1980s turned out to be white elephants despite extravagant promises of urban revitalization, helping the poor get from the city to suburban jobs and as way to lure suburbanites back downtown. There are few jobs along the proposed Woodward route, not a lot of reasons to come downtown and fewer prospects in the foreseeable future. No convincing case has yet been made that it would generate anything but construction jobs.
The best part of this deal is that business leaders are willing to put a huge pot of their own money on the line. The worse part is that it would be largely built largely on flawed concepts and require a huge outlay of taxpayer dollars. The Transportation Department should continue to have reservations about the need and the long-term value of the project.
For a city strained to it core with massive fiscal problems, and one with limited revenue generating opportunities, it is laughable to even consider an impractical fixed rail system predicated on a preposterous “build it and they will come” mentality.
Stick with the bus plan that is economically feasible and won’t take taxpayers for an unjustifiable and costly ride.