Cynical Synapse

Wed, 14 Dec 2011

Detroit’s Woodward Light Rail Torpedoed

Detroit light rail sinks
Image by Jerry Paffendorf. HT: Detroit Curbed

Big news in the Motor City today is the “sudden” cancellation of the Woodward Light Rail project slated to begin construction within the next year. The line would run up Woodward Avenue from downtown Detroit to the city limits at 8 Mile Road. The US Department of Transportation had already awarded federal funds toward the program, with more promised. Awards included $2 million for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) to study expanding the line into the northern suburbs. The project, including its extension, seemed to have local, regional, state, and federal backing&ellipses;until now.

Known as M-1 Rail, for Woodward’s designation as Michigan state highway 1 (M-1), several years of planning and discussions, including such hurdles as environmental impact studies, are already done. Perhaps more significantly, the transit line represented a new era of regionalism and cooperation between city and suburbs. Add to that the $100 million in private seed money to jump start M-1 and you can sense the larger importance of Woodward light rail. Even now, the M-1 Rail consortium wants to build the 3.4 mile phase I line in Detroit. Full disclosure: I’m a rail and transit enthusiast. When entrepreneurs and private foundations still want to invest their money, civic leaders should pause and take notice.

bus rapid transit

Initially I had Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood cast as the bad guy. He met with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing (D) and Gov. Rick Snyder (R) last week, so I presume this announcement has been festering since then. Even Detroit City Council had no clue, interviewing project managers just this week. It becomes apparent, however, Mayor Bing made the decision; perhaps under duress from Gov. Snyder who is not a rail proponent. In place of the Woodward light rail line is a proposal for several bus rapid transit lines. According to Bing, this is the right decision for Detroit and the region. Except no one asked the transit folks at SEMCOG, or Detroit City Council, or Detroit’s congressional delegation, any of which seem none too happy with this turn of events.

Mayor Bing contends the same money will buy bus rapid transit from downtown Detroit out Woodward and Gratiot into Oakland and Macomb Townships, a line between those suburban endpoints, and another connecting downtown Detroit with Metro Airport. There’s no question such a plan would serve more than Woodward light rail alone. As M-1 Rail points out, however, there’s been no work on funding, no environmental impact studies, or any other preparatory work. Bus rapid transit is, thus, at least a couple of years down the road—pun intended—before the first shovel-ful of dirt is turned. Never mind Detroit already has two dysfunctional bus systems. The “plan” is to overlay bus rapid transit so it complements the current Detroit Department of Transportation (D-DOT) and Suburban Mobility Authority for Rapid Transt (SMART) bus systems. Just what we need, a third metro Detroit bus system.

Besides my predictable chagrin at yet another nail in the coffin of Detroit rail transit, the region is left as the only major metropolitan area without an integrated transit system and, particularly, no light or commuter rail or subway systems. Taking a more pragmatic view, however, loss of the Woodward light rail line equates to a loss of an estimated $3 billion in development along the light rail route. Bus systems do not bring the same degree of transit-oriented development as rail. Did I point out the entrepreneurs behind M-1 Rail still want to proceed with at least phase I construction?

Previously on metro Detroit transit:


  1. So, do the ‘private’ backers of Detroit light rail still want to build it? Then by all means, have the city, state and national governments loosen up their regulations to allow construction and operation. Money from those governments? Oh, no; politicians are unable to tell if any given project or program is even technically feasible, let alone potentially profitable. That way, if in fact there is enough demand for light rail in and around Detroit, the private owners of it will be able to construct and modify it to meet that demand and still return a profit. If not, they’ll take their money elsewhere and invest in something that will make a profit and create jobs. If the politicos control it, those decisions will be made based on ‘who’s my buddy?’ and ‘what gets me re-elected?’ and ‘how much can I pocket myself?’ rather than by profit and loss where the investors’ own money in on the table, instead of public tax dollars.

    Comment by Ike — Thu, 15 Dec 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts. Bear in mind we shouldn’t expect transit to be profitable any more than we expect roads to return a dividend. I suspect the private backers are still interested from the perspective of transit-related development, which light rail excels at compared to buses or bus rapid transit.

      Comment by cynicalsynapse — Thu, 15 Dec 2011 @ 6:25 pm

      • Taking a brief look back into the history of American ‘transit’, you’ll find that all of the predecessors of these modern light rail projects – which were called variously, streetcars, electric railroads, intercity electric railroads just to list a few – did in fact make a profit and were abandoned when they could no longer turn a profit, even – perhaps especially – when they were either government-owned or government granted monopolies. ‘Transit-related development’ doesn’t produce a profit, either, because having developed real estate along or at least at both ends of light rail is a necessary pre-condition for its development and profitability. Bear in mind, if it isn’t profitable and if the private backers are themselves backed by government subsidies, protection from competition and the other benefits of government regulation, then the operating losses will be paid for by the taxpayers, most of whom will not be using the light rail nor benefiting from any ‘transit-related development’.

        Comment by Ike — Fri, 16 Dec 2011 @ 2:15 pm

  2. Hello, CS. I’m missing you. I know you are probably very busy, but hope you return soon.

    A Friend

    Comment by The Old Man — Sun, 04 Mar 2012 @ 9:16 am

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Old Man. I’ve just not had the time. At this point, I’ve got no projection on a possible return.

      Comment by cynicalsynapse — Mon, 19 Mar 2012 @ 8:30 am

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