No silver bullet: Managing expectations for light rail on Woodward

As I’ve acknowledged before, I succumb pretty easily to my own pessimism when it comes to mass transit projects in southeast Michigan.  So I haven’t been hanging my hat on the Woodward Avenue light rail line.

First, there’s the typical delay associated with rail plans in Michigan.  SEMCOG’s Carmine Palumbo blogged back in February,

I am worried that the unrealistic expectations that some heap on transit can have more of a negative than a positive impact. What do I mean? Well for example if groups are spreading the word that construction will begin later this year and the earliest it can begin is mid 2012, then it looks like the project is behind schedule. “Behind schedule” can be code for some to mean more expensive and other unforeseen problems.

Sure enough, the Metro Times reported last month that the opening of the line has been postponed from 2013 to 2015 (as it had “ been determined that the project should be constructed in a single phase instead of the two that had been planned”). 

Furthermore, M1 Rail’s funders, who are footing the bill for the lower segment of the line, are causing trouble with their demand that it run curb-side instead of down the center – an idea that makes no sense, as Yonah Freemark explains in a recent post for the Transport Politic.

And DDOT is causing trouble with their demand that the line loop around to the Rosa Parks Transit Center on Cass. Freemark laments, “The fact that this route would parallel the People Mover almost directly — eliminating its very limited raisons d’être — should be bothersome to anyone who is paying attention.”

Even the financing is a mess.  The Free Press’ Jeff Gerritt spoke to the frustration of rail supporters in a column this week:

Meeting with the Free Press editorial board in mid-April, the mayor told me he needs investors to commit within 30 days. Thirty days have passed and nothing definitive has happened. A spokesperson for the M-1 Rail leadership team declined to comment through an e-mail on Friday, other than to say “they are not comfortable commenting on something the mayor said in a meeting they were not present at.”

Here’s an even bigger problem: Detroit’s application for federal assistance must explain how the city will pay to operate light rail. Fares will bring in maybe $3 million a year, but running the system will cost at least $10 million more. Facing a $150-million deficit, the city can’t do it alone. For now, there is no plan for a regional transit tax…

Worst of all, perhaps, is the nagging existential question of whether a huge, expensive investment in rail even makes sense in a Detroit that is slowly returning to nature.   Consider Ed Glaeser, who blasted the project in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal.   Now, I took major issue with Glaeser’s column on a number of counts.  He failed to note the Woodward line has plenty of support from local transit riders who want an alternative to the car; nor that a substantial section of the line is to be funded privately; nor that the line would actually extend up Woodward into the Oakland County suburbs, if it weren’t for the fact that L. Brooks Patterson is allergic to mass transit and that the City of Detroit is still paranoid about having to surrender any of its autonomy.  I’m increasingly disillusioned by Glaeser for this kind of laziness; he seems to have made up his mind a long time ago that because Detroit has lost its manufacturing base, it should no longer exist.  He consequently seems to oppose any investment in the city as a waste of resources.

Freemark addressed the same question Glaeser raised, but in a much more informed and sophisticated fashion:

In a city that lost 240,000 inhabitants between 2000 and 2010, the necessity of this project must be evaluated. The city is overbuilt … What is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new transit project in a place that has few issues with traffic congestion and where transit ridership has declined from 136,000 daily users in 1996 to 121,000 today…?

Those who doubt the importance of new infrastructure for Detroit have a point — there might be some value in simply redirecting the funds appropriated for the rail line towards poverty alleviation. Yet there is no clear mechanism by which to do that… So transportation improvements like the light rail line act as an indirect approach in an attempt to remediate this city’s ills…(S)everal areas along the Woodward rail line actually gained population between 2000 and 2010.

Regardless of what happens with the project, there are a number of fundamentals that will not change:

For one, Midtown will continue to thrive compared to the rest of the city.

For another, even if it is built, the Woodward line would only serve a tiny fraction of Detroit, let alone the metro region whose sprawl dwarfs it.  Bus service will continue to be the primary mode of transit for the majority of public transportation riders in the region, and the primary means of connecting workers to jobs, services, and shopping in the suburbs. As Gerritt writes:

 (T)he Federal Transit Administration won’t allow Detroit to weaken its already inadequate bus system to build a rail system — nor should it. More than 25% of Detroiters don’t have vehicles. Their needs come first. Besides, a rail line needs decent bus service to feed it.

Fortunately, Transportation Riders United has done an excellent job of continuing to press for bus service (and it paid off last week, when TRU managed to forestall cuts in state funds for public transit).

Detroit will remain a great city to bike in, with its flat geography and its empty streets.

And regardless of what happens to Woodward rail, the other major rail service improvement in the region – Detroit to Ann Arbor – will benefit from the recent influx of federal money for that route.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t think of Woodward rail as some kind of silver bullet.  Nor should we get too discouraged by the myriad roadblocks it faces.  We need to manage our expectations, while still dreaming big.


3 responses to “No silver bullet: Managing expectations for light rail on Woodward

  1. I’m somewhat surprised by the assertion that the LRT should *not* serve the bus station, for the sole reason that a segment of it would duplicate the route of the People Mover. Considering the concern already existing that the LRT would come at the expense of the existing bus system and its riders, rather than as a complement and enhancement to them, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see the bus station connection as an important consideration of access and equity, rather than some whiny demand on the part of DDOT.

    Similarly, I don’t see the LRT cutting into the people mover substantially — the two serve different purposes, and even the more looped LRT designs will not, whether through routing, frequency, or price, be mistaken for the people mover.

    Finally, Freemark brings up some really weird concerns, like looking at the regional long-range plan and suggesting that a Gratiot corridor BRT line indicated would in fact run exactly on Gratiot and terminate exactly at Campus Martius, with no opportunity for planning or refinement to that very high-level conceptual plan, ever. Complaints like that suggest someone is fishing for ways to arrive at a determined conclusion (and display a much lower understanding of the transportation planning process than I usually attribute to Freemark).

    I don’t think the WLRT is a silver bullet — though I do think it’s a very important piece of the puzzle — and nor do I agree 100% with the decisions I’ve heard hinted at about the final alignment (the FEIS is due out in the next month), but this is a process that by necessity requires some compromise. It’s unreasonable to say, “YOUR silver bullet expectations are unrealistic, so you should implement MINE instead,” which is how I read a lot of the criticisms of the WLRT.

  2. Ehh, I think the underlying problem is that the People Mover is kind of a white elephant to begin with. It is Glaeser’s favorite example to use whenever he wants to talk about Detroit’s infrastructure glut. The thing it will remain useful for, if M1 rail ever gets built, will be getting people to and from certain locations: the RenCen, Greektown, Joe Louis & the Cobo Roof. It’s also occasionally handy for folks who parked on one side of downtown and need to get to the other, and I imagine it will help relieve congestion on M1 after major sporting events, the fireworks, etc.

    I agree that the benefit of directly serving the Transit Center far outweighs any harm from duplicating the People Mover.

  3. Pingback: Requiem for Woodward rail | Motown To Tree Town

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