Jim Epstein on Light Rail in Detroit: Is This America's Greatest Boondoggle?

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Downtown Detroit, 1917. |||

"Downtown," wrote the urban historian Sam Bass Warner Jr., was "the most powerful and widely recognized symbol of the American industrial metropolis," and it still 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.

The allure of downtown is an ongoing distraction from what's actually important for the health of cities, writes Jim Epstein, and 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?