Land Use Boondoggle in the Motor City—Detroit's Train to Nowhere


Detroit has become a place Hollywood directors come for great wreckage shots. One quarter of the city's 140 square miles are deserted. Detroit public school students boast the nation's worst reading scores, the products of a corruption-ridden school system that recently flirted with bankruptcy. Detroit bested Baltimore in 2009 to take the dreaded "murder capital" title. It may also be the worst place in the country to have a heart attack: prepare to wait half an hour for an ambulance.

In a town lacking essential services, what do local leaders and federal politicians have in mind for helping the city? What's needed to hoist Detroit back to its 1950 heyday, when it was America's fourth largest city, with more than double its current population?

Why, light rail, of course!

The Motor City is moving ahead with a plan to build a 9.3-mile light rail line that will run from downtown Detroit to the edge of the suburbs. It'll cost an estimated $500 million. Three-quarters of the bill will be paid by federal taxpayers, with the rest picked up by a consortium of foundations and businesses.

If built, the project will end up on the Mackinac Center's list of government-subsidized white elephants touted as "crucial to Detroit's comeback," its "rebirth," and pivotal to "turning things around." In reality, it'll just be another train to nowhere, much like Detroit's existing light rail line, the unfortunately named "People Mover," which operates at 2.5% of capacity.

For more on Detroit's light rail folly, check out Reason Foundation's Adrian Moore and Shikha Dalmia's rebuttal to PBS's recent documentary, "Beyond the Motor City," which laid out the case that light rail can, yes, "revive" Detroit.

Produced by Jim Epstein. Approximately 5.45 minutes.

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  1. How many boondoggles does it take before a government realizes they don’t work?

    1. At least Aleph 3.

    2. A boondogoogolplex.

    3. Boondoggles do work. They give the impression of serious action in the face of crisis. Think of Easter Island. The last cheif who raised the last statue head was praised as a leader.

      Light rail will produce visible, tangible proof that somebody has done something. It will produce photographs of construction, provide jobs for government workers, and will provide jobs for the mechanics and drivers.

      Then, when it is all done, they can propose a third line to link the two that they have. Presto! More jobs! More growth!

    4. Just one more, I swear it, this time we’re through. Just one more, we’ll quit tomorrow.

  2. The Motor City is moving ahead with a plan to build a 9.3-mile light rail line that will run from downtown Detroit to the edge of the suburbs. It’ll cost an estimated $500 million.

    I’m betting at least $2 billion before it’s done.

    1. Is that the Keynesian multiplier I keep hearing about ?

    2. Such an overrun estimate would usually be correct, but this is Detroit. The cost of eminent domaining all that property won’t be nearly as much as it would be in a city showing signs of life 🙂

      1. But the graft and union labor to build it will make up for the land costs.

        Besides, I am willing to bet that all kinds of friends of the local pols now own a good chunk of the land.

        1. Absolutely. Even (especially?) in “progressive” Portland, which has been on a binge of light-rail and streetcar (and even a tram!) building for decades, these things always end up lining the pockets of the politically connected. A few years ago the local alternative weekly Willamette Week (hardly a conservative rag) ran a story about how much of the property along the newly-built streetcar line was (surprise!) owned by groups controlled by friends and family members of the politicians who pushed it through and chose the route it would take.

          Of course the liberal reaction wasn’t outrage at this blatant looting of the public by the connected elites, but anger at Willamette Week for daring to say a negative word about their beloved streetcar line.

    3. I’m thinking Big Dig level overruns. This is Detroit, after all.


  3. I’m confused. Won’t the spectacular success of the Chevy Volt make light rail in Detroit superfluous?

    1. The light rail will be powered by the sun.

      1. Are you talking about Coleman Young Jr.?

        1. No, you’re thinking about lanterns and coolers.

      2. I call the big one “Bitey.”

  4. The only thing that will revive the motor city is for it to develop an economy based on things other than cars.

    1. I suggest turning it into an adult Disneyland. Legalize drugs, gambling, and prostitution within the city limits of Detroit (or even just an abandoned area of the city). Make it clear to the criminal enterprises that violence will not be tolerated but that anything else goes. And watch the bucks roll in.

      1. It already is if you know the right people.

    2. Like trains?

    3. Detroit was bordered by three of the countries richest counties not too long ago. That wealth came from the big 3. They still may be rich however shystervilles like D.C. have recently surpassed everyone.

  5. Having worked in that area, my bet is that this is happening, not because it’s a good idea or because it has any chance of operational success, but because they could get money for it. Light rail has succeeded in getting its nose under the federal transportation tent, and now it’s just a matter of hauling those dollars from the “donor” states to places where those with political pull can put them.

  6. I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

    1. How could you tell?

      1. It’ll be cleaner and have less crime.

        1. Ah, I see.

            1. Pure, cleansing flame.

              1. “Who gives a damn about petty special interest politics when there’s an entire cosmos to be swept clean with fire?!”

  7. North Haverbrook likes this.

    1. MONORAIL!!!



      1. Mono-d’oh!

    2. What about us brain-dead slobs?

      1. You’ll be given cushy jobs!

      2. You’ll be given cushy jobs.

        1. The ring came off my pudding can.

  8. light rail = lots of sweet, delicious, unionized jobs with gold plated lifetime pensions

    driving your corolla downtown = bupkus for the unions

    it’s a no brainer!

    1. Detroit is a shit hole thanks to the unions.
      “it’s a no brainer!” That’s why union members like it.

  9. In all fairness, I hear they have a world class orchestra.

      1. Time to import some Japanese musicians.

        1. Mexicans would do it cheaper. Ever heard the mariachi version of O Fortuna?

          1. No, but I did hear the polka versions of “Spirit of the Radio” and “Closer to the Heart” at a Rush concert a couple of weeks ago.

            1. Limbaugh has a band???

              1. If it is his, it rocks quite well for some old guys.

          2. Mexicans would do it cheaper. Ever heard the mariachi version of O Fortuna?

            I would love to listen to their version of In Taberna…

          3. Robots would be still cheaper.

      2. Wow. How fitting.

  10. Detroit: A Terrible Place to Be From.

    1. Here in Detroit, we know not to end sentences with prepositions.

      That should be “Detroit: A Terrible Place From Which to Be, Motherfucker.”

      1. I thought it was Mo’fucker

    2. I would have thought Detroit was a good place to be from. What city would you rather see in your rear-view mirror?

    3. Not really. It’s a terrible place to be. (Sorry J sub D). It’s kind of like England – a once great, now crumbling industrial power that still produces a lot of great bands.

      1. Wow, 3 responses, 29 minutes after the original comment. that has to be some kind of record.

        1. Not even close.

      2. Detroit has its charms as well as its challenges. Like the rest of the human race we have high hopes for the future. It appears that the city government has finally come to terms with the decline of the cities former population, wealth, influence and prestige.

        I’m looking at a core city of 1/2 a million in a metro area of 4 million when it all shakes out. Lower housing prices and more greenery than you’d find in most major cities and still some of the finest cultural attractions in the country.

        It can be done if we think and act long term and do what thinking practical people know works. As I detailed downthread, light rail is too many bucks for too little bang in Metro Detroit.

        1. Needs a renaming, J sub D. North Miami? Retroit? Rock City? Windsor South? The District of Colombia (note the spelling)? Pontchartrain?

          1. PL: Check your map. It would actually be Windsor North.

          2. Windsor South?
            That would be Windsor North,

            1. Ah, I see. It’s like Los Angeles being east of Reno.

              Blame a Florida bias–all things north are Canada.

              1. Also, Pro Lib, we can’t rag on the “light rail” BS, since we’re about to get our Tampa – Orlando line.

                Once we do, email me – we can do lunch at one of the Cuban restaurants down there.

                1. I bet that rail dies a horrid death. It’s just too damned expensive. And I can’t figure out the point. I can drive to Orlando anytime I want to.

                  1. The point is that politicians get to waste millions of dollars. What other point do they need?

                    1. Central Florida leans a little conservative to allow that. Tampa may very well be waving bye-bye to the Rays if they try to hold up either side of the Bay for stadium funding.

                  2. I bet that rail dies a horrid death. It’s just too damned expensive. And I can’t figure out the point. I can drive to Orlando anytime I want to.

                    This is the only way to save rail as I see it.

                    If I can get on a train with my car and get off with my car near where I want to be, I’d go by rail.

                    Of course, it has to be cheaper than driving myself and the hotels on the way or get me there faster than driving myself.

  11. Sometimes certain towns and cities outlive their usefulness. Even if Detroit and Michigan had favorable business environments, most people and businesses would prefer to be in a warmer environment. It’s just time to tear the place down and plant trees.
    New Orleans is another such city. They best way to save New Orleans is to turn it into a giant adult theme park, a cross between Amsterdam and Las Vegas. Because no one in their right mind is going to build a manufacturing plant in a city that gets hit by a major hurricane every five years.

    1. “Sometimes certain towns and cities outlive their usefulness.”

      YOU LIE!

      1. Thanks for the laugh. Actually Machu Picchu got potential; it’s near a train station.

      2. “Sometimes certain towns and cities outlive their usefulness.”

        I think Washinton DC had reached that point by July 17, 1790.

    2. This country went to all the trouble and expense to develop thermonuclear devices…let’s use’m

    3. About every 35 years actually.

    4. Even if Detroit and Michigan had favorable business environments, most people and businesses would prefer to be in a warmer environment.

      When did Detroit get to be colder than Chicago? New York? Boston? Minneapolis? Hell, North Dakota is booming. No, the problems of the city of Detroit are man-made, not weather.

      And, because of the condition of the city, people tend to overestimate the problems of the region and state. Compared to Illinois, for example, there is really no corruption statewide (There’s corruption in Detroit, but it’s localized — Detroit is not big or influential enough to infect the rest of the state). The tax burden is actually only middle-of-the-pack and the Democratic, union-sponsored candidate for governor is about to lose in a 20-point landslide to a Republican political newcomer with a background as a tech CEO and venture capitalist. Improvements in the business climate look very likely.

      1. You are overlooking three gigantic impediments. Black. Democrat. Union.
        Detatchment is the answer. The opposite of annexation, detatchment could allow Detroit to divest itself of huge tracts of unprotective land, and the public services that is required.
        Then, become more white, more Republican, and a right to work state and progress begins.

        1. Of course, then Detroit would become that which it doesn’t want to be. Detroit wants to be Black, Democrat and Union. Michigan should step back and allow that to happen/continue. Allow Detroit to wallow in what that begets, ala E. St. Louis. Pour all their resources into west Michigan/Grand Rapids and let Flint/Pontiac/Detroit slide deeper into the shitholes they have become.

        2. Arlo, I saw this article from
…..n_det.html Maybe it’s too early to tell but on the other hand… Also there was that article from NPR from May 2010 about the hispanic community of Detroit…..=126309820

  12. Holy shit at the money isn’t scarce comment.

    1. Don’t worry, I’m on it.

      1. Get off, I want to be on it!

  13. Don’t you know that “infrastructure” spending is magic?

    It creates economic prosperity all over the place.

    At least that’s what Andrew Ross Sorkin said when he was “lecturing” PJ ORourke on Bill Maher’s show the other day.

    I had to change the channel pretty quick after that or risk an expensive TV set replacement.

    1. Yeah, I saw that too, and probably changed the channel at the same moment. My wife in the other room wondered who I was yelling “shut up” at.

    2. I’ve seen infrastructure spending turn around an area, but that was because it just meant the city was finally doing its job. It can set the stage for growth, IF the regulations and moratoriums and stupid zoning rules are eliminated too, or at least pushed down to a minimum.

      But see, it worked once, so now it’s the magic bullet for everything.

  14. Rep. Marie Donigan has found her solution. She just needs to spend a little more time coming up with more credible sounding problems that her plan is solving.

  15. Two things:

    – 9.3 miles at an estimated $500 million is pretty cheap by today’s standards.

    – Why is it that when I refresh the page, the ads show up righty away, but the text takes forever to appear?

    1. Two schekels for a camel is dear when you don’t have two schekels.

    2. 1) it is probably cheaper to build in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, as compared to say in Manhattan

      2) despite #1, it will end up costing a lot more than $500m

    3. ads? Use adblock and the text will appear first (as the ads will never appear).

      1. You, sir, are worse than Hitler.

        1. You know who else was worse than Hitler?

          1. Your mom!

          2. Hitler’s evil twin?

        2. The ads with viruses are worse than Hitler

        3. No sir, the ads with malware are worse than Hitler.

          1. Adblock Plus +!

            1. +1* PLUS ONE!

  16. Huh, who knew there was an infinite amount of money for Detroit to spend? Budget we don’t need no stinking budget.

  17. Think of it as a bailout program for muggers.

  18. Reality check –

    Detroit has ample, cheap parking available downtown, a result of the tearing down abandoned buildings over the last couple decades.

    Detroit has lost >50% of its population since 1955, ~33% since 1970. The freeways into and out of the city were all designed with the aforementioned populations in mind. IOW, like all big city we have traffic issues but nothing compared to healthy growing cities. A freeway standstill during rush hour is the exception, not the norm it is in San Diego, New York, Houston etc.

    So if this piece of offal is built, people who live in the ‘burbs and work downtown and happen to live near the single rail line (Oakland County, Western Wayne County, Macomb County? No matter, less tha 25% of the commuters) will still drive their cars to work.

    Full disclosure – I’m not a college educated urban planner, I know what the fuck I’m talking about.

    1. I know plenty of college educated urban planners, and you are obviously far more intelligent and informed than all of them.

    2. Detroit had extensive streetcar lines. There’s a reason streetcars when away and it wasn’t Roger Rabbit.


  19. I’ll sell them Phoenix’s billion dollar light rail, cheap. I think I can let it go for $200 million, payment by certified check only, of course.

  20. At last, impoverished Royal Oak residents have an affordable option for transportation to ball games. High five!

  21. Reminds me of what they plan to do in Fort Worth. The Mayor wants some downtown “modern streetcar” system. Plus there’s also the Trinity River Vision project (looks like there’ll be plenty of eminent domain used for that).

    I guess the main difference is that Fort Worth isn’t as bad off as Detroit is…

    1. Plus, Fort Worth is actually growing, and might actually need some of what they are building.

    2. I live in one of the new apartment buildings that is part of the TRV project. It is hilarious to see the million-dollar penthouses (which no one is buying) butted up against the ghetto. I am also shocked those people still live in their homes as one of them is literally right across our driveway.

  22. Ah, “stimulus” at work. Light rail will work wonders in the Motor City until all the transit workers go on strike. When looking at the quagmire that is my fathers hometown, keep in mind that this is the city the put Coleman Young in power for 30 years and elected Kwame twice. There’s a reason the city is dead.

    1. I voted for Kwame the first time. His opponent was just more of the same entrenched Detroit politician bullshit.

      I was flabbergasted that he was re-elected after scandal upon scandal emerged his first term.

      1. “I was flabbergasted that he was re-elected after scandal upon scandal emerged his first term.” Yeah that really is a suprise.

        1. I am continually surprised that libertarians advocate “limited government” when every single unit of government at every level has been plagued with scandal since time immemorial.

      2. I think all metro-Detroiters had high hopes for KK the first term. Man, he ended up being eleventy-seven levels of bad, eh?

  23. Everywhere you can get off the people mover is within walking distance of where you got on.

  24. Ya they’re trying the same thing here in Tampa. At least our overlords were nice enough to let us vote on the sales tax to implement it.

    1. I’ve heard that the tax is polling favorably. That is so unbelievable that I almost drove off the Howard Frankland bridge when I heard it. Damned if I’m voting for it.

  25. I didn’t realize the “Monorail” episode of The Simpsons was a documentary.

  26. Why do you need light rail in a rural area?

  27. About every 35 years actually. It’s probably higher still but I’m going with the 35 years number as that is basically Biloxi’s number for getting major hurricanes.

  28. Wow, Detroit is worse off than its portrayal in RoboCop (a movie released in 1987).

  29. Doesn’t Michael Moore still live there? Perhaps they should have made it a freight line instead of light rail

    1. Are you calling me a stupid fat ass with shit for brains?


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  32. By the time it’s done, people can drive to the train station in their George Jetson style flying cars.

    1. That depends, my friend. If said flying car is not from a UAW approved factory, I expect that at some point you’ll come back to find a smashed-in windshield.

  33. A response of sorts:…..ey-missed/

  34. “unfortunately named “People Mover,” No it’s refered to as the “Mugger Mover”.

  35. Man, fuck my hometown.

    I hope that city burns to the ground and all we have left of it is a tasteful memorial to it. It’s all it deserves at this point.

  36. Try my penknife, my good man!

  37. You people are arrogent. You think you know everything. You want to live in a country where everyone looks the same, thinks the same, a bunch of clones who will eventually outsmart yourselves.

  38. WastingtonDC: Too many dealers chasing too large a profit, to pay for too extravagant union benefit’s, have insulted the most financially able vehicle buyers and forced them to buy foreign diesels, or those made decades ago, by UAW, for long service life, and the minimum quality that we all must have, from a major investment. GM, et al, have honed their dealer’s knives, and savaged those less financially able, forcing them to allow US manufacturers to make their profits from financing their poorly designed and short lived vehicles, instead of competing on product quality, longevity, and price, as was the case, when UAW built my favorite F700 at the Kentucky Truck Plant, in 1993. With only 57K miles on it’s US Air Force veteran engine, it will run a million more miles with the fully synthetic engine oil we put in it’s Cummins diesel, last week. If congress enacts the Drive America to Energy Independence Act, I can afford to convert the F700 to diesel/hybrid operation. Hybrid, and exempt from taxes, it would pay for it’s $20,000 turn key conversion, with the conversion shop’s exclusive US made Baldor electric motor, and custom computer controls, in the first decade of it’s million mile life.
    Now, with the congressional flavor of the week, tiny micro electric, that can only plug in the to the grid, or hybrids that cost more than a small farm home, replete with mindless subsidies extorted from those few Americans still paying taxes, the smartest guys in the Government Motors board room are driving GM into the ditch, instead of building the vehicles 80 million Americans must have, now, to survive OPEC, and the SinoRussianLevant energy blackmail alliance’s next shut down of the Straits of Hormuz, or of our own Gulf of Mexico sources, or those of our other non terrorist financier suppliers. GM owned the truck markets among the working men and women of America for most of the last century, and is now earning far too small a portion of the dozen or so million new vehicle buyers who might be able to afford a new vehicle, to live and work with, for the next decade, or two.
    Ill conceived lobbyist fueled efforts to force gasoline fueled vehicles that only last as long as the typical user’s most expensive loan period, down the throats of buyers empowered by VW and Mercedes diesels, and even gasoline fueled compacts, by Honda, and Toyota to drive the same vehicle that their mother drove them to pre-school in, has become American automaker’s failed business model, in the past few decades.
    With dealers lots crowded with unsold, repossessed or working people’s vehicles abandoned by their victims, Detroit’s replacement of top management, in a search for a manager who “Gets It” is laudable, albeit long overdue. Ignoring 80 million ready, and willing if differently financially able customers that OPEC has already made desperate to buy a hybrid, or soon will, is certainly a firing offense for any manager, board member, or design team. It is not rocket science, even Detroit can do it, right now. An American university team built a large SUV hybrid, with current technology, some years ago, and I was offered a conversion of my 1993 F700 Ford Motor Home Truck, using it’s Cummins 175 HP fuel sipper diesel, by a private firm, a year ago. That firm is using their exclusive design, of a US made Baldor motor, with conversion parts now available off the shelf, or designed and built in their own shop. Their price was only $20,000 if I drive the 54,000 mile surplus USAF truck to their shop, and pick it up, after conversion.

    I or any other long experienced union worker manager capable of respecting the skills and hard work of our union members, whilst protecting those highly talented and able union workers from their political masters can go to any of the disused or failing Detroit plants, and use the idled job bank personnel to build a prototype family of light, medium and heavy truck based hybrids using the excellent heavy hybrid designs top designers are nourishing, even in Detroit. Yes, their outlaw hybrid drawings are all hidden under the flavor of the week micro-hybrids, now mandated by the same genius congressional campaign contribution harvesters who forced Detroit to stray from their wholesale ownership of the 80,000,000 market, of working Americans that live in, by, for, and with their light, medium, heavy truck based vehicles, and can/must afford to buy any hybrid the day our congressional political criminals enact the Drive America to Energy Independence Act. Just exempt all hybrids, new, used, or converted, from all taxation, fees, or license requirements that now savage any working person attempting to buy a vehicle that can safely carry the minimum load of materials, tools, and crew that the owner requires, to make a living. Issuance of a permanent Federal NAFTA Free Trade title and license, at $50 total cost,for all new, used and converted hybrids, their trailers, ancillary equipment, such as battery driven trailers with motors and batteries slung under the trailer’s frames, of any legal size or weight, with no taxes on any NAFTA sourced fuels, tires, repairs, parts and labor, used by any hybrid, taken with greatly increased anti-terror taxes collected at the refinery, will end our dependence on OPEC and other terrorist supporters, within a generation. The anti-terror taxes can be distributed based on state’s collection of VIN numbers, read by overhead EASY PASS style RFID readers, to prove the out of state mileage in each state, by all private and commercial vehicles. Hybrids running with 25 percent less fuel costs will reward their owners with a new truck, or replacement batteries, and doubled profits, since they will not enter any weight scale, or inspection palace, from the day of their owner’s conversion to hybrid vehicles. US production of fuel only vehicles will end within a generation, with no felt cost of the subsidies, to our taxpayers, who now recoil, when Stossel buys an all electric Golf Cart, for $6500, and gets it for free, due to a stupid congressional mandate for micro mini Plug In only electrics, that UAW cannot build in America at a profit. Ending all monopoly utilities efforts to prevent independent power generators from making cash profits, with homemade bio fuel, farm co-op produced bio-diesel, or CNG provided by their farm’s nearby shale gas pipeline, will insure the Plug In and Out hybrid owners, farmers, truckers and industrial workers, can earn a living, with their truck idling at 1800 RPM, at home, or at their work place, earning distributed electrical generation payments, during all peak electric rate hours, and charging their travel batteries, at off peak electric rates, gaming the different rates. That would end their need to game the DOT hours of operation laws, and running three sets of log books, to stay on the road 24/7/350 or more days, and never see their families. The same refinery taxes on all transport fuels sourced outside of NAFTA must be sized to fund monthly pre-fund energy checks to those of our peoples unable to afford their heat, much less automotive fuels. Those choosing wisely, to use public transportation can use their deserved pre-fund checks for any purpose allowed for other social spending purposes. Given the individual liberty of choosing to Drive America to Energy Independence, 80,000,000 working Americans will do that, in a single generation. In addition, given the freedom from the vicious revenue gouging by individual states, dozens of millions of not presently trucking Americans will opt for a similarly voluntary choice, a national taxfree hybrid 55 MPH speed limit, programmed into their vehicles excepting in those vast western states that retain higher limits, and install active speed limit broadcast signs, allowing exactly those higher limits, only where the higher speeds are justified. The thousands of lives saved, and the hundreds of thousands of independent businesses created as distributed electrical generators come on line, as truck yards, dry cleaners, farmers, and indeed any truck owner’s lot where trucks sit idle, for more than half their lives, employ US workers to wire them up for distributed electrical generation, and hire power supervisors, to keep those millions of distributed energy profit centers pumping MW of energy into the overloaded grid, that will be ever more loaded, as even the micro mini plug in electrics may become viable, as the infrastructure is built out, and independent small business power producers add their wealth, and their profits, to the GDP. The laws of physics insurance program, that protect five ton and larger vehicles far better than small vehicles can ever be protected, regardless of their designs, construction, or safety features, will add to the millions of Americans adopting generating assets, that happen to propel a vehicle, when they are not powering the grid. The millions of RV owners already invested, as I am, in an RV electrical outlet on our farms, will benefit, as will the RV manufacturers when those adequate sized 400 HP diesel or natural gas engines can be used, at home, at RV parks, and at remote off grid farms and camps, to power the grid, power our lifestyles, and empower us, to Drive America to Energy Independence, in my lifetime.

  39. That is NOT what it looks like on Woodward during rush hour. I agree, Detroit needs so much. However, a lot of people who live near Detroit want this train to get into the city and back. A lot of people who live in detroit, wouldn’t mind a way to go to the suburbs and shop at a real grocery store (there aren’t many in the city). Maybe there aren’t enough reasons but there are some valid reasons to put this in.

  40. While it may or may not be the right thing for Detroit, recent commuter rail lines in Charlotte and Minneapolis did spur enormous economic development along the rail corridors they were put in. That video does a good job of casually dismissing the prospect of commuter rail building a city without offering any reasoning behind it.

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