Is Detroit's New Light Rail Line America's Greatest Boondoggle?

A $137 million three-mile train is coming to a nearly deserted avenue in a bankrupt city.


Growing up in the 1940s, Robert Fogelson remembers banging on the typewriter and peering out the window at his father's office in a Manhattan skyscraper. Then "[my dad] would take us for lunch to a nearby Schraft's, a chain of restaurants that was popular with housewives like my mother, who regularly went downtown to shop…to socialize …or to meet my father for a play or a movie." Fogelson hadn't decided yet what he would do with his life, "[b]ut I took it for granted," he writes, "whatever I did, I would do downtown."

As much a concept as a physical location, "downtown" was "the most powerful and widely recognized symbol of the American industrial metropolis," wrote historian Sam Bass Warner Jr., and it evokes sentimentality even in those of us who grew up long after flagship stores and corporate headquarters had relocated to the outskirts, leaving urban commercial districts empty and decrepit. Tourists still pack Times Square in New York City, where they can revel in a Disneyland-like recreation of downtown's bright lights and crowded sidewalks. Fogelson never became a denizen of a towering skyscraper; he's an urban historian at MIT and the author of Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, an examination of how center cities have shaped public policy.

Fogelson's story ends in the middle of the last century, but downtown's allure is an ongoing distraction from what's actually important for the health of cities. It explains in part the twisted logic behind one of the most confounding urban development projects of our time, a $137 million 3.3-mile light rail line that breaks ground in Detroit next week. How else could sane people think a bankrupt city should build a wildly expensive rail line on a partially deserted avenue in a neighborhood awash in cheap parking?

Let's consider what the new light rail line will mean for the people who live and work in the Motor City. Today, the suburbanites who commute to downtown Detroit might be frustrated by their limited lunch options—vacant storefronts don't facilitate much culinary variety—but at least they get to enjoy a congestion-free drive to the office. Under-utilized lots and garages occupy almost 40 percent of the land in downtown Detroit, so the walk from the car to the cube takes just a few minutes.

What if Dan Gilbert, the billionaire co-founder of Quicken Loans and the puppet master behind so many recent efforts to revitalize downtown Detroit, were to mandate that his employees utilize the new light rail line in their daily commutes after it opens in 2016? (Gilbert relocated Quicken's headquarters to downtown Detroit four years ago to inject life into the neighborhood.) That would mean rather than drive straight to the office they'd have to drive within three miles of the office, park their cars in a lot somewhere along Woodward Avenue, wait 7-10 minutes for a train to come, and hand over $1.50 for the inconvenience.

How will the light rail line serve the 26 percent of Detroit households that don't own cars and depend on the city's dreadful bus service? Detroit has a 139-square mile footprint, but the light rail line will serve only those travelers who happen to be going from one spot to another along one three-mile stretch on Woodward. Buses, on the other hand, have the capacity to weave through neighborhoods, giving commuters what they most desire, which is to move as quickly as possible from one location to another with the least amount of hassle. Buses are also orders of magnitude cheaper to operate and maintain, which is why Detroit shut down its last street rail line in 1956, when the city's population was almost three times its current size.

In a 2010 interview with Reason TV, Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff compared the light rail line to building "swimming pools" in a city that has so many broken ambulances that calling 911 is like scheduling an appointment with a cable repairman. If every train car were to end up packed with riders, the light rail line's proposed $1.50 fare still wouldn't come close to paying the system's operating expenses, so it's destined to become yet another drain on taxpayers—just like downtown Detroit's existing rail line, the "People Mover," a.k.a. the "horizontal elevator to nowhere," which has been burning city cash running empty rail cars in a three-mile loop since it opened in 1987.

Still, the federal government saw fit to hand over $41 million in subsidies to build more light rail in Detroit (that's $25 million in cash and $16 million through a tax gimmick). The Detroit News editorial page recently applauded the project, calling the federal commitment "pocket change" compared to what the government spends overall on infrastructure. Tell that to the public sector retirees facing a haircut on their pension benefits; in a city embroiled in chapter 9 bankruptcy, every dollar counts. Detroit is so cash strapped it's now cutting off water service to scofflaw elderly residents. (Light rail's backers recently begged the feds for an additional $12 million in funding; the money hasn't materialized yet, but they're pushing ahead with the project anyway.)

Detroit's light rail line could be written off as a typical government pork fest, if only a large share of the construction funds weren't coming from private sources. The biggest contributor besides the federal government is the nonprofit Kresge Foundation, which has pledged about $35 million. A key figure behind the project is Gilbert, a downtown nostalgic extraordinaire. Hanging in his offices, there's a 1917 photo depicting downtown Detroit as a dreamy wonderland, with pristine streets, Model Ts, ladies promenading in fine dresses, businessmen in top hats, and, of course, shinny rail cars running down Woodward. In 1917, Detroit was a magnet for the nation's brightest minds—the Silicon Valley of its day—and Gilbert wants to turn back time. He's buying up empty office buildings on a bet that downtown can become a linchpin for the city's revival.

"'People my age, we would hear from our parents and grandparents who were raised in Detroit about how great this city was, from 1900 to the 60s,'" Gilbert told The New York Times last year. "'As I started visiting [other] great American cities, it hit me—man, how did we blow this so badly?'"

Gilbert's downtown investments are harmless as long as he's spending his own money, but the light rail line is mostly a play to leverage the public dollars required to fund its operations over the long term. Gilbert and Rip Rapson, the president and CEO of Kresge, would do a lot more good using the same money to replace Detroit's aging bus fleet, which is an everyday drag on the quality of life in Detroit. (Lifting the city's ban on private jitneys would be even more fruitful.)

But bus philanthropy wouldn't yield any downtown monuments or splashy groundbreaking ceremonies, like the one I expect we'll be subjected to next week, including all the tiresome bromides about the city's comeback. Detroit's best hope lies with concerned citizens and entrepreneurs making less heralded investments in the city's residential neighborhoods, like those featured in "Anarchy in Detroit," Zach Weissmueller's recent Reason TV series. Public dollars should focus exclusively on improving core services, such as helping the Detroit police build on its recent success in crime reduction.

Light rail is destined to become another monument in Detroit's graveyard of failed renewal projects. It's time to cede our downtown nostalgia to the theme park operators.

Nick Gillespie and I covered Detroit's light rail project for Reason TV back in 2010, when it was a 9.3-mile $500 million project: