Transit officials over promise benefits of light rail in Detroit, too

September 7, 2011

President Obama is sure to mention passenger rail in his speech as part of his new job recovery program. And one example he points to is Detroit. James Taranto from the Wall Street Journal reminds us that rail is not at all what taxpayers are led to believe.

This would be funny if it were not indicative of most light rail systems, including Sound Transit. Officials over promise the benefits in exchange for higher taxes. Then once the officials receive the taxing authority, their promises fall apart.

Train to Nowhere 
Yesterday we noted that President Obama was holding up Detroit, a once-great industrial center that precipitously decayed in the latter half of the 20th century and has continued its decline ever since, as a model for America. An editorial in the Detroit News points to another similarity between the Motor City and Obama's America--boondoggle trains:

The rail system circles downtown Detroit and was built in 1987 on the theory that it would help fill office buildings and draw new restaurants, residents and retail outlets. It was also supposed to connect to hoped-for subway and rail lines.

But like many government projects built without regard for a return on investment, the People Mover never delivered on its promise.

Ridership never reached the 12 million annual passengers predicted before it opened, let alone the 20 million needed to break even. So the city has kicked in huge subsidies to keep if from shutting down and standing as yet another reminder of Detroit's struggles.

This year, the subsidy was $4.4 million. Ridership is 2.2 million. That means the city subsidized each ride by $2. Passenger fares bring in just $900,000.

The expense might be justifiable if the People Mover had sparked development. But many of the stations are in empty buildings, and there's no noticeable concentration of commercial activity around the rail stops.

news story reports that the Detroit City Council "cut the People Mover's subsidy by $1 million to $3.4 million, which will trigger a reduction in state aid. [Mayor Dave] Bing could submit a budget amendment to avoid a shutdown, but Council President Charles Pugh said he's not sure whether that's the right course of action. 'That's a big problem, (but) this is not an essential service, so we can't fully fund them,' Pugh said." Meanwhile, the City Council is hard at work on another boondoggle: a $550 million "light rail" project.

Reader Jim McGovern, who lives in a Detroit suburb, describes the proposed 9.3-mile train: "9.1 miles of this route will run through one of the most dilapidated, burnt-out stretches of urban cement in the country, if not the world. Imagine the Orient Express running through Mogadishu."