Detroit Misses the Train (Again)

December 27, 2011 by
Filed under: The Right Answer 

Detroit has suffered another disappointment, this time at the hands of a Republican Governor (and some very shaky municipal finances), with the apparent cancellation of the M1 Woodward Avenue light rail/streetcar project.

This has a familiar ring to transit historians. Detroit has studied and pondered workable rail rapid transit projects many times in the past, some dating back to the early twenties and some getting tantalizingly near to actual implementation (see Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, by Robert M. Fogelson, for the details).

Detroit’s last streetcar line (Woodward Avenue as history would have it) was its strongest, supporting headways of 90 seconds in the rush even up to its untimely demise in March, 1956. Although the streetcar network was owned and operated by the City of Detroit, the automobile industry and especially General Motors had their sights on replacing the rail service. After all, this was (and is) the Motor City. After several unsolicited studies of Detroit’s transit system by GM in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s (all of which recommended, unsurprisingly, an eventual all-bus network), the city was unable to resist GM’s constant pressure. Although the city had embarked on a modernization program after World War II (which included purchasing 184 new PCC streetcars delivered between May 1947 and October 1949), it all went for naught. The streetcars, some only seven years old and hardly depreciated, were packed off to Mexico City at fire sale prices. Various efforts in subsequent years (especially during the Coleman Young administration) to build a subway under Woodward Avenue were unsuccessful. There was no money and only hostility from the surrounding region. Mayor Young’s own hostility issues didn’t help matters.

The current effort was spearheaded by a private entity, The Kresge Foundation, which led a private business group to commit $100 million for a 3.4 mile line from Detroit’s riverfront to Midtown. The Kresge Foundation pledged $35 million of its own money to the effort. This modest endeavor blossomed into a much larger project extending an additional 5.9 miles to reach Eight Mile Road. The expansion of the project was made possible by the promise of federal monies. What had originally been envisioned as a modest $150 million privately funded project had ballooned to $600 million.

The stated reason for pulling the plug was that the Feds feared the city would not be able to fund the operating costs ($10 million annually) for the expanded line. This was and is no small concern since the city has been teetering on the brink of insolvency for some time and finances have recently worsened. That this was only recently noticed by the feds leaves us incredulous and concerned. The current mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing (yes, that Dave Bing, of NBA fame) has been working feverishly to improve the fortunes of the city but he can pull only so many rabbits out of an increasingly tattered hat. The bus service currently operated by Detroit’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) is slow, inefficient, and woefully underfunded. Even the automated downtown people mover has operating cost issues and might have to shut down.

Stepping in to save the day, Michigan’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, announced plans for a network of high speed buses, or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Governor Snyder’s 110 mile regional plan calls for BRT to supplant the Woodward rail line and connect the city to the three surrounding counties. And all for $500 million (a similar plan contemplated earlier had an $800 million price tag). One can only surmise why the project became cheaper by almost 40%.

However, buses normally have higher operating costs than rail. So, how will BRT solve the lack of operating money issue?

Will it get built? As Billy Crystal muttered in The Princess Bride, “It’ll take a miracle.” While previous plans have tripped over the issues of regional cooperation, regional governance and the like, the governor’s BRT proposal makes no attempt to address these critical issues.

A bright ray of hope was detected on Monday, December 19th, when Rip Rapson, the President and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, announced that his group even now remained committed to the original 3.4 mile project. He pointed out that the “mere prospect of a light rail line” had spurred substantial development along the corridor, encouraged large employers “to move or expand their investments and footprint in the city,” attracted over $100 million in new grants and loan guarantees by national foundations and financial institutions, and – – maybe as important as the other factors – – had given long suffering Detroiters a degree of hope and excitement that the line could be a transforming force for their neighborhoods. Rapson stated that he thought the M-1 project would work well with the Governor’s BRT plan. He did not mention, however, who would pay the operating costs for the smaller project.

A number of members of Michigan’s Congressional delegation have now asked for reconsideration of the decision. They understand the potential of the M-1 rail project to transform the corridor that it will serve.

It will be interesting to see if the governor can make room for this private initiative in his BRT proposal. If not, we can probably conclude that BRT is just a stalking horse for suppressing Woodward rail. If so, the governor will have perhaps revealed his true colors. He’s really for continued dependence on automobiles.

As a Republican, the governor should be championing an initiative from the private sector as consistent with conservative principles. This project represents the private sector at its finest, stepping forward to provide a majority of funding and leadership for a worthy project. It could become a model for private – public cooperation.

Conservatives should watch this closely. The original project makes sense. It fosters economic development, provides funding for most of the project, and promotes a sense of place and stability in an area that dearly needs it. What will “conservative” Governor Snyder do? Stay tuned.

Glen Bottoms is Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation


10 Responses to “Detroit Misses the Train (Again)”

  1. tz says:

    Nonsense; and I live here. Woodward to 8 mile is hardly a popular route. Personally I could use one along the lodge or southfield freeway, so this light rail from nowhere (I invite you to park your car at 8 and woodward – or ride the bus 10 miles there instead of direct) helps nothing. Not that rail wouldn’t be good, but it would need to be more comprehensive – to Pontiac, along telegraph, gratiot, the lodge, grand river, schoolcraft and/or michigan.

    Detrioit is depopulating. Trans-suburban rail would have riders. Even with downtown detroit as a hub. But a single line? Maybe for show, but 95% would still need roads

  2. brian says:

    BRT makes more sense. It could be up and running much quicker and cheaper than the light rail. It is really only a matter of steel vs. rubber wheels. Why the obsession with trains, there are other options for effective mass transit. I’ve seen a BRT work abroad. It worked just like a train. It moved efficently in its lane and had a connected carriage. It will give GM something more to do making the buses, instead of GE, which to my knowledge has no connection to The D.

  3. Deb says:

    For starters, American Conservative Center for Public Transportation is an oxymoron.
    We are being inundated with ‘models’ of public-private partnerships. They take public money to benefit private business. They remove accountability to the local people by installing an ‘authority’ which is generally allowed to raise taxes and is protected from referendums. The private part of the partnership is typically first in-line to receive financial benefits. Let’s not even get into graft and cronyism.
    The only thing that can save Detroit or our country is restoring our work ethic, our sense of community, our cultural morals, and self reliance.
    Federal money is still our money but with strings attached and a cut taken out of it.
    A transportation system will succeed IF the users and the benfactors are both willing to pay for it’s inception and operation without relying on tax payor funding. But to think that mrely building one will revive a city is definitely NOT Right. If that were true, businesses would have built it a long time ago.

  4. See, this is exactly my problem. When the entering argument is that a segment of the population has a “unique history and experience” the implication is that the other segments don’t. Themes and holidays that divide the nation into segments don’t help anyone. They just promote the idea that the subject groups are and ought to be permanent others. What we should be doing is taking those experiences, seeing the common themes in our own backgrounds, and fusing it all into a shared culture. Instead we are passively encouraged to think of these experiences as nothing more than “Black history” or something to reflect on once a year during “Latino day.”

  5. Aaron Kulkis says:

    Brian — General Motors made rail equipment in the past, and can do so again — it they want to. Although I’m a lifelong Detroiter, and nearly my entire life’s economic fortunes rise and fall with the personal automobile/truck industry, I can only say that the wholesale destruction of the nation’s rail services is a national tragedy.

    There was a time when a person could get all the way from the terminus of Woodward Avenue (Michigan Highway #1, for non-Michiganders who don’t understand the importance of this road) at the banks of the Detroit River all the way to Flint, Michigan (nearly 100 miles) using nothing more than LOCAL trolley lines (i.e. not even requiring a regional Flint-Detroit run). Trolley/light rail lines were that extensive even in southeast Michigan.

    Strangely enoug, some of the old rails are still in evidence along Michigan Avenue (Highway M-12) in the 1/2 mile stretch which passes in front of where Tiger Stadium used to be… with a road surface which is still intact with bricks laid down in the 1920’s — almost 100 years old, without a single rebuilding, even though it experienced decades of heavy truck traffic.

    I love my car, but our highway system is a concrete-contractor’s lobbying scam.

  6. Aaron Kulkis says:

    Deb — I agree. Government needs to get out of the business of subsidizing and promoting chosen businesses… COMPLETELY. Worst of all are subsidies for new stadiums for the benefit of team owners (to the exclusion of everyone else).

  7. Aaron Kulkis says:

    Brian … BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is an oxymoron. You’ve obviously never been to Atlanta, New York, London, St. Petersburg (Russia) or Moscow, or any other place with a well-established light-passenger-rail system. Non-surface rail is FAST because it doesn’t have to deal with traffic jams. Even with frequent stops, a good subway or elevated rail system can get you from downtown to the outskirts of town at 3x the rate of any private automobile, let alone a sluggishly accelerating bus — and transportation THROUGH downtown areas is even faster relative to a bus.

  8. Sarah says:

    How unfortunate.. I was looking forward to this.. hopefully they will start to pay a little more attention to their budget now though..

  9. Claude says:

    Deb might have a good point. If a rail line really makes good economic sense, wouldn’t a private company build it?
    We’re going to ignore the point that a private company is currently trying to do that right now and skip ahead to building more roads, which is the answer to everything.
    But if a road really made economic sense, wouldn’t a private company build one? Wouldn’t trucking companies build highways if it were really a good idea?

  10. Claude says:

    After looking at the map, I favor a two line streetcar system, preferably with restored PCC cars. Line 1, from * Mile Road to downtown, then out Jefferson to Grand avenue, across the Douglas MacArthur bridge and down Central Avenue the length of Belle Isle. Line 2 would run from the oleman A. Young Intl Airport down Gratiot and out Michigan to the Fairlane Town Center.

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