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This Is Not the End of the Line for Transit

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I am fully confident that we will have rail in Detroit. We need it. The demand and the benefits are indisputable. Like so many people, I dream about it. I picture myself using it every time I commute.

That said, the cancellation of this specific light rail project does not surprise me -- nor does it particularly disappoint me. The project was fraught with problems from the beginning. That is true of the older "M-1 Rail" private initiative, as well as the city-led Woodward Light Rail plan.

Over the life of the project, two themes dominated: light rail as a monument to local powerbrokers and as a silver bullet for economic development.

As a career transit professional, I was puzzled to see so much emphasis on the people rather than the project. Good intentions aside, these champions failed to enlist expert advice at critical moments. Instead of an effective public-private partnership, we ended up with a perverse private-public flip-flop: "investors" were to bankroll an inherently unprofitable public utility. With their money tied up in infrastructure, after all, who would invest in real estate along the line?

As for the second theme, the positive economic impacts of rail are proven worldwide. But those successes aren't based on rail alone. They are the result of special zoning, mixed land uses and hundreds of small development projects happening along the rail corridor. In Detroit, we gambled on an unrealistic sequence: build the rail first and then hope that everything would happen afterward. Oh, and forget about those hundreds of small projects -- we'll handpick a few big projects favored by the in-crowd and call it done.

In the background, actual or near-actual developments along Woodward hardly oriented themselves to transit. The most egregious of them all is Gateway Park at the State Fairgrounds -- a single-use, parking-centric power center with no meaningful provision for rail, pedestrian or bike access. Elsewhere on Woodward, new construction consisted largely of gas stations and strip malls. That is not the face of a vibrant transit corridor -- or a healthy urban center.

Remember the People Mover? This piecemeal approach is why it never reached its expectations. True, Woodward rail would have connected nodes rather than making circles. But there's still a fundamental lesson that we have not learned: transit is an important ingredient, but it's not the only ingredient. To quote Ben Falik, "The People Mover didn't fail Detroit so much as Detroit failed the People Mover." Or, as once quipped on DetroitYes: "Just because you have eggs, cheese and vegetables, doesn't mean you have an omelette."

For all the talk of legacy and development, one topic rarely entered the equation: the line's functionality as a transit service. Transit is a system -- not a vacuum-sealed package. Supporters point to Dallas, Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City as successful single-line starter systems. And they're right. But those systems feature a vital element which, to us, was a pesky afterthought: connectivity with the bus system.

Challenges notwithstanding, we politicked our way to federal funding for rail. But Federal Transit Administration (FTA) money has a very logical string attached: if you want hundreds of millions of dollars from Washington, you need to prove your ability to operate the new service for at least 25 years. We tapped Gilbert and Penske for an up-front capital investment - but should they be on the hook for $10-$15 million every single year to keep the trains running? No one ever addressed that question seriously.

Meanwhile, as the FTA is going through its standard checklist, our current transit systems are literally falling apart. The city has threatened to close the People Mover. No one knows what to do with DDOT. And, earlier this week, SMART put into effect devastating, ill-conceived service cuts. Nothing is coordinated. Nothing is moving toward a plan. It's all spiraling out of control, and the best answer that anyone around here can offer is "blame the unions."

What does this all look like if you're Ray LaHood? Objectively, not a very wise investment of federal money -- especially when other metropolitan areas have their acts together. Consider rapid bus service -- our consolation prize. Implemented properly, bus lines connect real dots and lay the groundwork for rail. As demonstrated in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Ottawa, buses can hold their own when it comes to service quality and appeal. Really.

All the breath-holding, finger-crossing and wood-knocking in the world aren't going to build us a transit system. Transit is a complex undertaking and a technical profession; this is what we Detroiters can't seem to grasp. If we want a credible transit plan, we'll need credible transit planning. That much is simple.