Detroit Leads the Way?
Detroit’s off-again, now on-again Woodward Avenue streetcar line offers a model conservatives should favor (see my colleague’s earlier piece; Detroit Misses the Train (again)). Most, perhaps all of the money to build the 43.4 mile line will be private.
The source of the funds will not be investors, but philanthropists. Wanting to revitalize their home city of Detroit, they have chosen to put their money not into hospitals or museums or schools but into something that will create more money in the form of economic development. From that perspective, a streetcar line is an excellent choice. If it has the same effect streetcars have had elsewhere, the Woodward Avenue corridor could soon see substantial new construction and business activity.
A recent article on the Woodward Avenue streetcar line, “Three Cities, Three Tales of Tenuous Transit Plans” by Mark Bergen, found in the January issue of Forbes magazine, makes an interesting observation. It quotes Matt Cullen, chief of the coalition that is funding the streetcar, as saying its “backers are ‘people whose heart and soul are with the city of Detroit.’ In some sense, the philanthropists are shareholders of the city.”
His is speaking metaphorically. But what if we allowed major donors to important city infrastructure projects, whether philanthropists or investors, to become actual shareholders of the city? It might work something like this. Detroit, seeing the benefits private funding of infrastructure can bring as represented by the Woodward Avenue streetcar, establishes an Urban Shareholders Council. The Council issues Detroit Infrastructure Shares at a price of, lets say, $1,000 per share. Owning shares allows a person to vote at an annual meeting, just as in a private company. That meeting elects not a board of directors, but the Urban Shareholders Council.
Here is where my proposal gets conservative. The Urban Shareholders Council is given real authority over such matters of city governance, specifically those aspects that relate to economic re-development and growth. The Detroit city council cedes its own authority over such matters to the Shareholders Council. Being a Detroit shareholder is not merely an honorific; it brings an important voice in the future of the city.
Liberals will scream that this would diminish their favorite false god, “democracy.” People willing to put their money on the line for the city’s future would have a stronger voice than those who merely stumble into a voting booth every couple of years, if they do that. That is true – - and a good thing.
Conservatives are not egalitarians. We think people who are willing to invest in something should have a greater say than those who are not. Usually, they will be more knowledgeable about whatever they are investing in. They are more likely to care about long-term results. And they may be less susceptible to corruption, which in Detroit city government, reached notable proportions in recent years.
Detroit was, not too many years ago, a magnificent city. If it is to become one again, it needs to draw in private funding for infrastructure. All levels of government are broke. Without good infrastructure, economic re-development is difficult. The Woodward Avenue streetcar shows that infrastructure can attract private money. Why not take a bold step forward and see how much more private funding might be obtained in return for a voice in determining the city’s future? Given the shape Detroit is in now, what does it have to lose?
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation