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Published: Friday, 12/23/2011

Death of Detroit's light rail makes way for a better idea

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

DETROIT -- The mass transit community here was almost spluttering with rage last week. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood officially ended its decadeslong dream.

He made it official: Washington is not going to fund a light-rail system along the city's Woodward Avenue.

"This is an outrage!" exploded Megan Owens, head of a group called Transportation Riders United. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) criticized the decision, saying the government should have taken investors' "ideas and concerns" into account.

Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh said scrapping the light-rail project would cost the city investment and hope. And Cindy Pasky, CEO of a downtown firm called Strategic Staffing Solutions, huffed that it was "completely unacceptable" that Detroit's business leaders -- such as herself -- "were not part of the discussion."

But there's strong evidence that they are all dead wrong.

Killing the pipe dream of a rapid-rail line was brutally necessary. It opens the way for what these folks say they want-- affordable and reliable mass transit throughout the metropolitan area -- via a system that could be up and running in three to five years. That is, if the all-or-nothing crowd doesn't screw things up.

We are talking about a system of bus lines with vehicles that look more like modern trains than conventional buses. Now in use in Los Angeles and a few other places, they have accordion-like pleats in the middle, for making sharp turns. They have special computers that allow them to control traffic signals, meaning they wouldn't have to stop for red lights.

Three men with clout, the same men who agreed to abandon light rail, say this is the best option for the metro area -- and they pledge to work for it.

Besides Secretary LaHood, the men are Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. The Transportation secretary released a statement saying they had all "come together around a high-tech vision that will provide state-of-the-art, reliable transit to far more people, and in a far more cost-effective way."

Nobody really knows how much a light-rail system would have cost. But in any event, it would have extended only to the Detroit city limits, making it woefully inadequate for people who need to get to jobs.

Surveys show that more than three-fifths of Detroiters who have jobs work outside the city. That's where the jobs are these days, and the tragedy is that many people have no way to get to them. More than a third of all Detroiters have no private automobile.

The city's bus service is often unreliable, and it is not well-coordinated with the suburban system. Detroiters who try to navigate both systems often give up in frustration or end up losing their jobs.

The rapid-transit bus system would cover the region. The initial plan calls for a network of 34 stations. Sixteen would be in Wayne County, which includes Detroit. Nine each would be in Oakland and Macomb counties. The buses would run from downtown Detroit north to Birmingham on the west side and Selfridge Air Force Base on the east.

Conceivably, it could be extended even farther. The government estimates the cost of building all this at $400 million to $600 million, probably less than the cost of a single rail line.

The estimated time to build it is five years or less. U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, an Oakland County Democrat, enthusiastically noted that the cost of the system per mile would be about one-third that of a light rail system. But an opponent Mr. Peters will face in next year's primary election, U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke, was negative.

The Detroit Democrat said he was holding out for light rail, on the theory it would draw more investment and create permanent jobs.

"I'm not going to allow it to be over," he said. Instead, he proposed to ask the federal government to allow Detroit to keep all its tax receipts and use the money to build both systems.

Politically, of course, the chance of that is virtually nil. "I'm sure every congressman would like his district to keep all its tax money as well," Mr. Peters observed.

Secretary LaHood said Washington would make money available for most of the project, though it wasn't immediately clear how much. Rapid buses initially seemed to have more solid support in the political community than light rail ever did.

But it is scarcely a done deal yet. Legislative approval may be needed at some stage, and a lot of lawmakers aren't enthusiastic about helping Detroit. The bus system's annual operating costs would have to be funded through a regional tax, probably in all three counties, and that would take voter approval.

These days, plenty of Tea Party Republicans think all taxes are bad, no matter the social good involved. Mr. LaHood seemed also to say that federal help would be contingent on Detroit and suburban leaders cooperating to create an agency to run the system.

They haven't done well at that in the past. Nevertheless, it ought to be possible to find the support for rapid bus service -- provided the die-hard railroad romantics don't sabotage the idea.

The French philosopher Voltaire supposedly coined the saying: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

In the case of mass transit, that is very sensible advice.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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