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Podcast: Will Light Rail Lay Tracks in Motown?

Years ago, the Detroit People Mover was launched, taking riders 2.9 miles around the perimeter of downtown...and that's as close as Detroit ever came to a light rail system.

But now, officials have announced plans to build a light rail line that would run up Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main throughfare, that would theoretically be the beginning of a regional transit system. There is a healthy debate over whether the city could even use such a system, but Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber says the time is right.

Click "play" below.

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  • 1

    The so-called healthy debate on whether or not the city could use such a system is stupidly shortsighted and just plain ignorant of the effects such a system will have. In every city that has installed light rail countless business enterprises have sprung up along the routes which, in turn have lead time and again to further developmment growing out from but along the route. Light rail increases density which increases ridership which inevitably leads to more development, more employment, more tax revenue, and a better and richer quality of life. In my opinion, the only debate we should be having is about how soon we can get started!

    • 1.1

      When you said "the only debate we should be having is about how soon we can get started!", it brought back a hazy memory for this native/former Detroiter - wasn't the light rail and/or subway for Woodward first proposed in the 70's or 80's? I seem to remember the proposal drew a lot of criticism because Detroiters still pined for the old DSR electric buses moving under the overhead cables. Given the expense of constructing a rail line, light or otherwise, shouldn't other options at least be considered?

      Just wondering.

  • 2

    People in Detroit don't read, or maybe they can't.

    The finest writer on Cities in America was Jane Jacobs.

    In her last book, "Dark Age Ahead" she discusses this issue completely.

    It will be a failure. There are no real destinations.
    Transportation Engineers are self serving and invariably wrong. They were wrong when they said we need a separate bus route between downtown and the new center. Lucky if they had one rider a trip.

    This is pure fantasy and exceedingly costly and such monies could be far better spent on rebuilding Detroit.

    Interesting that we put up the People mover when Chicago removed the Loop. Economic success? Absolutely not. It's a drain just like that stupid 3 car animation is incredibly out of scale.

    Fantasy rides the day.


    • 2.1

      Not sure what you mean by "Chicago removing the Loop" - I have lived here for 17 years and haven't heard anything about it. As of my last trip downtown, the "L" lines were still running.

      I would also recommend against citing Chicago in any discussions about light/commuter rail - there are several commuter lines serving the metro area, and at least one proposal is on the table to add another.

      You are correct about destinations, though - gotta have 'em, or you end up with a life-size model train set.

      Is Lionel still in business?

      Just wondering.

  • 3

    This is one reason why we need to support the Michigan Turnaround Plan. It's a common-sense plan that Democrats and Republicans can get behind to move Michigan forward. Transportation and education create jobs, unlike most government spending. Learn how we can squeeze out savings from other areas of government (where we're overspending) so we can invest in underfunded programs (e.g., transportation):

  • 4

    The question of light rail cannot be decided on the pure economiics of ridership vs. cost alone. Light rail or any mass transit system does not pay for itself anywhere it has been constructed. But then, neither do roads pay for themselves through license fees yet no one would propose that roads be eliminated. Why? Simply because roads are the "skeleton" on a city.....the framework that the "tissue" of land use is built around. The same can be said for light won't pay for itself in ridership fees but is essential to allow a framework for businesses and neighborhoods to develope around.
    The area between downtown and the New Center is the single most densely populated and thus, the most urban of any district in Detroit. It is populated virtually 24 hours a day with Downtown workers, State employees, Tiger fans, Fox Theatre patrons, Orchestra Hall patronsWSU students and faculty, restaurant goers.....people of all ages, races, and residency. Light rail will give them a chance to see and experience the entire district from Downtown to the New Center and will enrgize and enliven the district beyond what is already there. Once light rail is built and the positive economic and social impact is experienced it will be inevitable that there will be a movement to extend it. This first step will make us all ask why we didn't do this years ago!

  • 5

    Al Sloan destroyed the streetcars.

    They were sweet, and quiet,

    The Canadians once owned the Streetcar system in Detroit. It was profitable.

    Then a movement started to get rid of them and have American ownership. It went downhill from then.

    Then we also had our Trolley system that was going to save Downtown Detroit. Problem is, it didn't.

    This is all willy nilly fluff talk and it will be very costly and have very little ridership.

    Detroit is the lowest density big city in the World.

    You need density and destinations to make it work.

    The mollycoddling fluff thinkers have their dream, really a bad dream.

    The special bus that the Transportation people said we had to have between downtown and the New Center, backed up by specious and fallacious O and D studies, ended up having 1 rider per trip if it was lucky.

    If one likes to dream, then look at what Brazil did on TED, it makes so much more sense.

    Oh, I get it, you never heard of TED!

    Sometimes I think that this has become the outback with Carpetbaggers and muddleheads.

    Mollycoddling this very bad idea spells disaster again.


    • 5.1

      Again, I have to ask what's the point of looking back into past mistakes? Very few people even know who Alfred Sloan was and even fewer care about the Canadians owning the sytem a generation ago. What people do care about today is building the kind of city we want in the future.
      You said that detroit is the lowest density city in the world....not exactly true but a myht that continuously stands in the way of establishing a transit sytem. It may be true for the city as a whole but the area bounded by Grand Blvd. and the river and I-75 and the Lodge is as dense as many metropolitan areas and certainly contains more people on a daily basis that places like Phoenix which is right now in the process of building a light rail system far more extensive that what is being proposed here.
      Even if Detroit isn't as dense as other places or doesn't currently have the sexy destinations that you claim other places what? Why do we need to constantly compare ourselves to other places and apologize for not being as good? Why can't we just make OUR city a place WE want and make it the best that it can be and ignore pointless comparisons. Let's just be who we are and stop apologizing for it! OK, so we're not Chicago or New York or Portland ....but we already have one of each of those. Lets be DETROIT and be proud of it!!

  • 6

    Light rail and high speed rail could save this country.

  • 7

    Years ago Detroit had about 30 streetcar lines plus there were inter-urban trains that continued at the end of routes to further older suburbs such as Mt.Clemens, Plymouth, and Pontiac. My late mother rode the Baker Streetcar line to a factory in the downriver area from the east-side of Detroit. She rode the trolley on tracks from East Davison and Ryan to Jos. Campau, the south thru Hamtramck, further south on Chene Street to Gratiot, left to Downtown, the further thru Southwest Detroit to Downriver area. Detroit was vibrant and densely populated then. The last streetcar ran down Woodward in 1955. City went to an all bus transit system & disregarded subway plans too thanks to General Motors lobbying(they made the busses), Mayor Cobo, and the City Council. After that I-94 was built, then I-75, and most retail & business along with people left the city. A region without a strong city-center is a dead region. Detroit must be revitalized, redeveloped, and repopulated is Southeastern Michigan is to halt the continual loss of young educated adults to cities such as Chicago that did not dismantle their public transit and destroy their city.

  • 8

    Shouldn't they finish consolidating neighborhoods and figuring out what the smaller Detroit is going to actually look like before they build the light rail? Hate to break it to you but no number of infrastructure projects is going to stop the painful process of shrinking a city.

  • 9

    The President's Detroit visit fell far short of what it could have been. Of course, this is a midterm election year and so the visit was more about showcasing the "success" of the bailout to moderate/independent voters, and not really about directly addressing Detroit's multiple crises. I feel that since the US taxpayers are majority owners in General Motors and minority stakeholders in Chrysler, both these companies should be forced to get on board with manufacturing for the transit industry- rail cars, hybrid/electric buses, train tracks, etc. Re-open those factories that were shut down. Open new factories, especially in previously abandoned locales like urban Detroit and elsewhere. I have written letters to officials, appointees and activists from the President on down, but so far this angle has only barely reached public discourse. The whole "quick-wash get-in-get-out" hands-off managing of the auto bailouts has been maddeningly wrongheaded. But at least the American public will get to drive those neat new Chevy Volts, at only $41,000 a pop. Save your pennies.

  • 10

    Has DOT done a traffic count on Woodward and maybe John R and Cass? Some seem to see light rail as a catalyst for economic development (residential, commercial, and business). I'd think that there is considerable uncertainty whether it would have the impact on economic development that its advocates suppose. Perhaps the problem is suitable for benefit/cost analysis where assumptions can be clearly listed and judged for their plausibility, along with sensitivity analysis.

    • 10.1

      J, why another study? This ain't rocket surgery, you know. Let's use some plain old common sense and go with our gut feeling. All a study does is give proponents a basis for arguing their case and opponents some facts and figures to question the know, attack the numbers and cloud the issue with inane debate until the issue goes away.
      No study can predict with any degree of accuracy what will result in terms of economic impact but one thing is sure and that is that when the planners and designers of cities a century ago decided to build streetcar lines they didn't bother with studies and numbers....they just did it because they knew in their guts it was for the better. Sometimes, we get too smart for our own good.
      Let's just get on with it. For those naysayers and revisionist history buffs who don't want the city to succeed, I say just get in your Escalades and drive to Sommerset and stay out of the way!

  • 11

    Transit and light rail can play a role in urban movement, but it needs to be realistic. The more concentrated the jobs the better chance the system has to carry people. Because our employment is so spead out, metro Detroit is not going to be a Chicago, Atlanta or even Salt Lake City. No system can work, subway or light rail included, without a good network of buses feeding the system. We need to look at comparable metro areas w/ diverse employment and see why. Putting a light rail car down a street and expecting it to be an instant success won't happen. Just look at the rail systems in Buffalo and Little Rock.

  • 12

    The late Edmund Bacon, city planner in Philadelphia (and father of Kevin Bacon) did a series on PBS years ago which discussed how successful cities developed. He took a historical look at how major cities evolved and how consious decisions about basic things like transportation made these places become. over time, the places they are today. One prime example was Rome, in which the emperor dictated that major roads be constructed far out into what was then the countryside and that major public features be constructed at key points and intersections. People at the time questioned the wisdom of this decision....though nobody really publicly questioned the emperor....and asked why construct a road when there were no people out there to use it. Well, over a period of years the emperor was proved to be right because the mere presence of the road encouraged the development of residential uses and commercial uses focussed around the public monuments constructed as part of the road network. Rome grew to be the major city it is today along these roads and these very same roads which were seen to go "nowhere" now are the very framework of the city. Likewise, a light rail system can, over time, create new development along its route and become such an integral part of the basic framework of the city that we'll all wonder how we ever got along without it. Light rail is a TOOL of development, not a result of development and it has to be viewed that way. "Build it and they will come" is not just a line from a good movie, it's a good planning philosophy, too.

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