Detroit rejects light rail, favors bus rapid transit (BRT)

COST Commentary: The two articles below cover this subject.

Detroit joins a growing list of cities which have rejected light rail/trolleys in favor of bus systems. The three articles below describe the considerations and the city’s decision. Key statements from the articles include:

-“Developed in the 1930’s, light rail is an obsolute form of transportation that does not promote economic development, relieve congestion, save energy, or reduce pollution. All it does is cost lots of money.”

-“proposed a less-expensive plan for a network of express buses to deliver worker from the city to the job-rich suburbs.”

-“poor transit remains an obstacle to employment for many”–

-“the People Mover train, which runs largely empty in a 2.9-mile loop around downtown”–

-the formerly planned “more than nine miles” — $600 million (likely much more), 9.3 mile rail system will be replaced with a $500 million, 132 mile, rapid bus system which is:— “a more cost-effective way to cover regional transit needs”–

In Austin, the planned initial Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system will serve more than 20 times the riders for less than one-tenth the costs of the Red Line Commuter train. Sadely, this first BRT will be more than 7 years late due to taxpayer funds being misdirected and wastefully spent on a much less effective train which experienced huge cost overruns.

It is very simple: Buses are far more cost-effective and can serve many times the number of citizens needing transit. Transit must be cost effective to be sustainable because taxpayers subsidize all transit. Fixed rail is the most highly subsidized transit mode.

As Cap Metro has proven, trains result in “bankruptcy” long before the transit agency can serve enough people to make any real difference. Taxpayers subsidize the average daily, two-way rider on Cap Metro’s Red Line Commuter about $20,000 per year including capital and operating costs. This commuter would require a minimum of more than 10 times as many riders to be cost-effective. Cost-effective ridership is an ever increasing number as many tens of millions of additional costs would be required to support greater commuter ridership levels.

The use of ineffective, high cost train transit results in major negative impacts for those most dependent on transit as fares are increased and bus service is degraded. Buses will continue to be Austin’s backbone transit system serving the vast majority of transit riders’ vital needs.

We must focus precious tax dollars to the most effective solutions for well understood community needs. Austin’s so-called “downtown urban rail” is not cost effective and its wasteful spending will preclude addressing priority mobility issues.

The first article below was by Randal O’toole, published just prior to Detroit’s decision to reject rail. The next two are local news articles reporting on the decision.
Deja voodoo: Detroit repeats Big City rail mistakes
By Randal O’Toole
The Michigan, December 9, 2011

Despite massive losses in similar transportation systems in Portland and Denver, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and President Obama this fall announced a commitment of millions in federal taxpayer dollars to a Detroit light rail line down Woodward Avenue. “Detroit deserves a world-class transportation system,” Levin crowed.

But light rail is sooo last century. In fact, it is a giant hoax perpetrated on the taxpayers of Detroit and the United States.

Developed in the 1930s, light rail is an obsolete form of transportation that does not promote economic development, relieve congestion, save energy, or reduce air pollution. All it does is cost lots of money.
Although promoters often call light rail “rapid transit,” it is actually very slow.

Nationally, light-rail lines average little more than 20 miles per hour. When operating in city streets such as Woodward, they average less than 15 mph. Such slow speeds entice few people out of their cars. The $60 million-per-mile cost of building light rail is enough to build a four-lane freeway. But the average light-rail line carries only about one-fifth of a freeway lane. Since most of those people would have ridden a bus, light rail offers little congestion relief.

Take Portland.
In 1980, 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters took buses to work. Since then, Portland has built four light-rail lines, a commuter-rail line, and a streetcar line. Now only 7.5 percent of commuters take transit to work – partly because the high cost of rail transit forced the city to increase fares and cannibalize its bus routes.

Or consider Denver.
The Rocky Mountain city is planning six new rail lines at a cost of $7 billion – or more than half of the region’s transportation spending for the next decade. Denver planners admit that all these trains will take just one-half a percent of cars off the road. Denver could relieve more congestion by simply coordinating the city’s traffic signals, which would cost less than one mile of light rail.

“The rail expansion tax of 2004 will likely go down in Denver history as the greatest swindle ever perpetrated in Colorado,” says Jon Caldara, president of Colorado’s Independence Institute and former Chairman of Denver’s Regional Transportation District. “And given Colorado was a gold-rush state, that says a hell of a lot. The project will drain money from real transportation projects for decades to come.”
Nor is light rail good for the environment. Nationally, light-rail operations use slightly less energy, per passenger mile, than the average car. But building light rail requires enormous amounts of energy that will never be repaid by the annual energy savings.

Light rail’s big selling point, that it promotes urban revitalization, is also a Big Lie.

When Portland opened its first light-rail line in 1986, planners rezoned the areas around each station for high-density, transit-oriented development. Ten years later, planners admitted that not one single such development had been built.

When asked why they didn’t build around the light-rail stations, developers said there was no demand for such developments. So Portland began subsidizing transit-oriented developments, and to date has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on developmental subsidies. Such subsidies, using tax-increment financing, are now common in almost all cities that have light rail.

Tax-increment financing takes money that would have gone to schools, fire, libraries, and other urban services and spends it subsidizing developers. The schools and other agencies still need to serve the new developments, so other taxpayers must either pay more taxes or expect lower urban services.
Developers, and the politicians whose campaigns they support, win. Everyone else loses.

Cities that build light rail without development subsidies rarely get new development, while cities that offer development subsidies without light rail do get new development. In other words, the subsidies drive the development, not light rail.

Not only does light rail cost a lot, the costs never stop. Construction costs are only the beginning. These are followed by the subsidies to development, which in Portland cost taxpayers $60 million a year. Then there are the maintenance costs – all those tracks, wires, stations, and expensive railcars are far more costly to maintain than buses.

Finally, transit agencies are never satisfied with just one light-rail line, and later lines are almost always far more expensive than the first. Portland spent under $20 million a mile on its first light-rail line. The latest one is costing more than $200 million a mile.
Buses can do anything light rail can do except spend lots of your money, but buses are faster, safer, and more flexible than trains. If traffic patterns change, bus routes can change overnight while moving a rail line takes years of planning and construction.
Rail advocates say you need rail transit to be a world-class city. The truth is that cities that use 1930s technologies to solve 21st century transportation problems are world-class chumps.

Randal O’Toole ( is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.
Wall Street Journal
No Train for the Motor City
By MATTHEW DOLAN, December 16, 2011

DETROIT—After kicking the tires on a shiny new train system, the Motor City has decided to take the cheaper bus instead.

This week, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Mayor Dave Bing suddenly abandoned a roughly $600 million plan to build a light-rail line along a key corridor that supporters had insisted would attract new residents and jump-start economic growth. Instead, they proposed a less-expensive plan for a network of express buses to deliver workers from the city to the job-rich suburbs.

Even the express-bus system would require a level of regional cooperation on transit that has long eluded Detroit and its suburbs. The impoverished city is struggling to maintain its existing transit network, including a rickety, heavily subsidized bus system and a lonely elevated train that courses through downtown.

The uncertain future of mass transit is more than a passing concern in a city where one in three residents lives in poverty, and an estimated 62% don’t own a car. At a time when hiring has perked up in the region, poor transit remains an obstacle to employment for many Detroiters.

“People are losing jobs because they can’t reach them,” said Mr. Bing, a Democrat.

Built by and for cars, Detroit is crisscrossed by freeways, but it has no subway system or commuter-rail line to connect its urban core to the suburbs. The few options for public transportation available to the city’s 713,000 residents are disjointed, unreliable and going broke.

The bus system’s aging, depleted fleet strains to meet demand across the 139-square-mile city, often forcing passengers, including schoolchildren, to wait more than a hour for a bus. A garage fire this month that destroyed six buses didn’t help matters. The city pledges to add 66 new buses to its fleet of about 265 buses on the road, but that will take years.

Meanwhile, the People Mover train, which runs largely empty in a 2.9-mile loop around downtown, will need to tap $9.6 million of a reserve maintenance fund to keep operating for two more years, officials announced this week.

Dependent on this shaky system are riders like 31-year-old Martez Perkins, who works the overnight shift on the cleaning crew at a suburban grocery store. After work one morning last month, he was stranded halfway from home at the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown by a one-day bus-driver strike.

Mr. Perkins takes two buses to and from work each day—one city bus and one in the suburban system—traveling 32 miles each way. Unsure when, or whether, the city bus will show, he said he arrives at his bus stop five hours before his shift begins. “As long as I have a job, I’m good,” he said. “I just need them to run tomorrow so I still have one.”

Less than two months ago, officials here were much more upbeat about transit upgrades as U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met with Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Mr. Bing to announce a new task force on regional transportation.

Talking about the proposed “M1” light-rail line—named for the state-highway designation of Detroit’s Woodward Avenue—Mr. LaHood pledged “unwavering” support and lauded its potential to spur job growth and expand mass transit throughout the region, despite sketchy ridership estimates. He vowed $46.7 million in federal transit grants to the city and state.

Local business leaders had a more limited plan in mind, a 3.2-mile privately funded rail line linking two busy commercial and cultural centers. But at the urging of the city and federal officials, organizers expanded the project to extend more than nine miles, from downtown to the city’s northern boundary, sending the construction estimates toward $600 million.

Then, in a swift turnabout, Messrs. LaHood and Bing shifted their support to a 110-mile rapid-bus system connecting Detroit and three surrounding counties. In a briefing for Michigan’s congressional delegation in Washington this week, Mr. LaHood described the estimated $500 million plan as a more cost-effective way to cover regional transit needs, people familiar with the matter said.

Ultimately, it was Detroit’s crumbling finances that made the new rail line untenable. George Jackson, head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., who recently reviewed the light-rail project for the city, said in an interview that the project had a $97 million construction-budget gap and no way to pay for the $10 million in annual operating costs. “The state of Michigan basically said, We’re not paying for your operating deficits,” he said.

Write to Matthew Dolan at


For less than $500M, a bus rapid transit system could cover nearly 110 miles
Matt Helms, Detroit Free Press, December 15, 2011

Officials decided recently to cancel a proposed light-rail line spanning the length of Woodward Avenue in Detroit in favor of a modernized system of speedy buses crisscrossing the region. Here are answers to some common questions about regional transit issues:

QUESTION: Why did leaders pull the plug on the light-rail line planned for Woodward?

ANSWER: Economics, plain and simple. It would have cost at least $550 million, and probably much more, to build the first 9.3-mile stretch between downtown and 8 Mile. Given tenuous financial conditions in Detroit and Lansing, no one could guarantee that there would be money to run the line once it was built.

Q: What is bus rapid transit, the plan proposed as an alternative?

A: These systems are modernized buses, longer than traditional coaches — including accordion-like middle sections to allow for sharper turns. They’re far sleeker than the buses now used in Detroit. They would operate in dedicated lanes, in many places separated from regular traffic by concrete barriers. The vehicles also are equipped with technology to let them control traffic signals so they don’t have to stop for red lights.

Q: What’s the advantage of a bus rapid transit system?

A: For less than $500 million, a bus rapid transit system can cover 110 miles along routes stretching from downtown Detroit to the suburbs, Metro Airport and Ann Arbor. Though the light-rail line would have started and stopped within Detroit’s limits, the bus rapid transit system would run along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan avenues and M-59.

Q: What’s the likelihood the bus rapid transit system will actually get built?

A: It has much stronger support among suburban leaders who doubted the rail line, including Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. Gov. Rick Snyder also backs the bus plan, and senators working on legislation for early next year say the bus rapid transit idea also will make it easier to pass legislation to coordinate and reform transit — key to earning federal funding for the project. It could be up and running in three to five years.

Q: How will it be paid for?

A: U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has indicated he’s willing to offer metro Detroit millions to help build a better transit system — but only if the region’s leaders agree to set up better coordination and oversight of transit. The federal government would pay the largest share of the cost to build the bus system, but its annual operating costs would have to be funded through some sort of regional tax. So far, no one’s saying how much they’ll ask voters to support.

Q: How is this related to new transit terminals that have opened or are planned for Pontiac, Dearborn and Troy?

A: The light-rail line wouldn’t have traveled to those stations, which are hubs for both buses and Amtrak service. Separate from the Detroit transit issue, Michigan is spending about $400 million to upgrade rail lines between Dearborn and Kalamazoo for faster passenger train service between Detroit and Chicago. It’s likely that the bus rapid transit lines would also connect to the Dearborn transit station, but not necessarily Pontiac’s. Troy officials have yet to accept federal funding for the proposed transit station.

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