Monday, December 13, 2010

If the government names something the People Mover, you can be damn sure it moves no people

Round and round and round it goes.  Where it ends up, NOOOOOBODY KNOWS. Except it's gonna cost your financially decimated city $12 million a year. 
On Friday night, I rode the Detroit People Mover.  I hadn't been on the thing for at least a decade; it was my friend's inaugural trip on the Mover. 

The People Mover - for those of you non-Detroiters - is a 3 mile elevated train that runs in a loop around Downtown Detroit.  It moves nobody from nowhere to nowhere. an absolute disaster.  I can't even explain how much of a disaster it is, so I'm just going to block-quote from Wikipedia, which is huge but so unintentionally funny that I couldn't really edit it down. 
The Detroit People Mover has its origins in 1966, with Congressional creation of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) to develop new types of transit. In 1975, following the failure to produce any large-scale results and increased pressure to show results, UMTA created the Downtown People Mover Program (DPM) and sponsored a nationwide competition that offered federal funds to cover much of the cost of planning and construction of such a system. Selecting proposals from four cities, the UMTA recommended that Detroit, Miami, and Baltimore be permitted to construct systems, but only if they could do so with existing grants. Though two of the four selected cities ultimately withdrew from the program, Miami and Detroit persevered to build theirs.
The People Mover was intended to be the downtown distributor for a proposed city and metro-wide light rail transit system for Detroit in the early 1980s; however, funding was scaled back.At the time of planning, the system was projected to have a ridership of 67,700 daily.

The system opened in 1987 using the same technology as Vancouver's SkyTrain and Toronto's Scarborough RT line. In the first year, an average of 11,000 riders used the People Mover each day; the one-day record was 54,648.
When the People Mover opened, it traditionally ran counter-clockwise. In August 2008, the system changed direction and is now running clockwise permanently, although it can run in both directions when necessary. The change to clockwise meant that trains were faster.

The Detroit People Mover is designed to accommodate up to 15 million riders a year. In 2008, it served over 2 million riders. In fiscal year 1999-2000, the city spent $3.00 for every $0.50 rider fare, according to The Detroit News...As of 2008, the system moved about 7,500 people per day, about 2.5 percent of its capacity of 288,000. The Mover costs about $12 million annually.
Here's that in a nutshell:  Congress spawned some acronym-laden commission.  It did nothing for a decade, but probably cost money.  Then the acronym commission created another acronym commission, and decided to have a competition to give away more money.  Apparently, DC needed to give you the thumbs up before you build a train in your city.  Fortunately, Detroit was "permitted" to build a system.  It - like virtually every government transportation system known to man - was built to serve a bajillion more people than actually ride the damn thing.  The one-day record for ridership is 13,000 riders short of the projected average daily ridership.  It basically carries people to and from hockey, football, and baseball games, inflating its actual ridership numbers.  Otherwise, these people would just walk from their cars to the games, and we wouldn't be the fattest city in America every year.  The city loses $2.50 for every trip on the Mover.  It runs at 2.5% of its capacity.  BUT IT CAN CHANGE DIRECTIONS MOTHERF-----!!!

They should have named the damn thing the "Medicare Mover" or the "Social Security Shuffle."  Then it would have exceeded its annual projected ridership by 500%. 

The People Mover is simultaneously one of the funniest and saddest parts of Detroit.  The experience might have been blog-worthy in and of itself.  We attempted to get to the Greektown station through one door, which we found was locked.  We ended up walking through another building and following a small crowd to get to the platform.  It costs 50 cents to ride the people mover.  Since nobody on earth owns a People Mover card, and you can't use dollars in the machines, there's a massive line of people stuck at a quarters machine attempting to break up dollars to use for the trip.  Before you even get on the thing, it's a perfect example of what you would imagine "public transportation in Detroit" to be.

As the thing dragged me along some giant, looping path to where I wanted to be, I thought to myself, "Hey, you know what would be awesome?  If they made a straight version of the People Mover that could also take you from nowhere to nowhere, and that nobody would ever ride, but that cost like 30 times more."

And BOOM, it was done!
Q: When does construction begin?

A: Light rail on Woodward will be implemented as a single project built in two phases. While a final schedule has yet to be developed, construction is anticipated to begin in 2011 on the first phase with the full system up and operational by 2016. The two phases are:

             1st Phase: Downtown Detroit to West Grand Boulevard

    * This phase is approximately 3.4 miles and will be advanced as expeditiously as possible with the necessary federal approvals.

             2nd Phase: West Grand Boulevard to Eight Mile Road

    * Utilizing the same vehicles and maintenance facility as Phase 1, this portion of the project will complete Detroit’s initial light rail project and set the stage for future growth of the regional system.

Q: How much will the Woodward Light Rail project cost?

A: The cost of the project will be determined during the Preliminary Engineering (PE) phase and is dependent on the final alignment, station locations and number, as well as the final cost of materials which are constantly fluctuating. For planning purposes, a range of $450 - $500 million is currently being used.
You've all heard about 8 Mile, right?  The title of Eminem's famous movie. The "barrier" between black Detroit and the white 'burbs.

Well apparently, that barrier is so damn strong that $500 million CAN'T GET YOU OUT OF THE CITY OF DETROIT. 

By the way, if this thing is up and running by 2016 and costs under $500 million, who's joining me in a shoe-eating contest?  Also, the People Mover was designed to "set the stage for future growth of the regional system." 

Which leads me to this thing.  It's an editorial from today's Detroit Free Press. 

Brief aside:  I dabbled in journalism in college, but I always made fun of college newspaper editorials because they were always so...simple.  Really, really simple pieces with elementary arguments, like "We are school.  We like dollars.  More money education" or "Government should protect (insert favorite group of the week here)" or "equality now!!!!"  And damn do these people love trains.  My theory is that this love affair begain during that semester abroad they spent in Prague or Barcelona or London or wherever it was they were in Europe.  But in any event, these people lovvvvvvvve trains.

Anyway, major newspaper editorials are just grown-up versions of the editorials these people wrote for their college newspapers.  I'm amazed at how terrible they continue to be.  The same reasoning - "We like X, spend money on it," or "We don't like Y.  Ban it" - in every piece.  And always, always begging for the federal government to do something (as if these people were Men In Black flashy-thinged right after GWB left office and forgot how much they hated the government for most of this decade).

The Freep's complaint is this:  Michigan was given a $150 million grant to build some railroad, and Michigan hasn't yet set aside the required matching funds, and therefore, might lose the money.  Freep's solution:
It's an ominous portent for the road ahead -- if Michigan doesn't find a better way to fund state transportation needs. Yes, that effort must include improving efficiency and working to get a fair share of dollars from Washington. But unless Michigan wants to watch hundreds of millions of dollars of federal grants fly to other states, it also means an overdue increase in the state gas tax.
We need a "better" way to fund things.  Little hint for you, Freep folks:  Government can fund things in one way, and one way only:  taking money from its citizens.  So write that.  Plain and clear.  If you think your goals are so awesome that they need to be paid for, write that.  Also, "fair" share of dollars and "overdue" increase in gas tax are really funny.  What's the "fair" share?  Whatever we say it is!  Why is a gas tax hike overdue?  Because we say it is!  A sure sign that whoever writes these things has never had any of his or her ideas or beliefs challenged.

Also, "ominous portent?"  Freshman English class called.  They want their thesaurus back. 

And this made me LOL:
Even the $150 million the federal government committed would have enabled Michigan to prepare roughly 60 miles of track for high-speed service. That would have cut commute times in the 280-mile corridor between Detroit and Chicago by about 15 minutes, giving Amtrak and the state an improvement to promote.
The Free Press just endorsed spending $150 million for 15 minutes.  I have no goddamn clue what on earth costs $10 million a minute, but I'm absolutely sure it isn't legal.  

Finally, the crux of the issue:
Now, unless the next Legislature acts quickly, or the Department of Transportation finds another way to secure the local match of about $35 million, more than $160 million will hit the road to other states. Gov.-elect Rick Snyder must make sure that doesn't happen.

More broadly, Snyder must show far more leadership than his predecessor in finding a way to pay for a transportation system that will help put Michigan's economy in overdrive.
Newspaper editorial checklist:  Plea for government action?  Check.  Plea for government to spend money on stuff you like?  Check.  Appeal to an individual politician?  Check.  Completely omit the word "tax" and instead include "finding a way to pay," as if the government is going to hold a bake sale?  Check.

I share views with both sides of the spectrum, but man, what a terrible ideology this is.  There's not even a argument as to why any of this is a good idea.  It's just, "The government wants to piss away hundreds of millions of dollars.  We're upset that we can't join the pissing contest."

Finally, this "matching fund" thing is pretty awful, especially with a poor state like Michigan.  It's a lot like telling a homeless guy on the street, "Hey, I've got this $100 bill for you.  But I'm not giving it to you until you can produce a $20, and even then, you can't spend the money on food.  You have to spend it on solar panels."  I mean, who does this stuff?  It's downright mean.  And now they're doing this - and the Free Press is cheering them on - while holding the state hostage until we find money for a train from Kalamazoo to Dearborn (because in all that time I've spent in Dearborn this year, the #1 complaint I heard was, "Damn, I wish there was some way I could get to Kalamazoo"). 

And even better, they dangle this $150 million in front of us so we can siphon off some money from road (you know, those things that everybody uses) repair, which, according to the Detroit News, is in dire straits:
MDOT is predicting funding losses of $120 million to $160 million per year from 2012 to 2015. If it can't come up with matching funds, it could mean the loss of $575 million to $800 million in federal funds for each of those years.

"That will mean not fixing 600 bridges, the cancellation/postponement of 180 road projects covering 385 miles of roads. Plus, we will cancel maintenance projects slated for more than 600 miles of roads," MDOT's Shreck said. "In 2011, our budget will provide 15,800 construction jobs; but in 2012, that will drop to under 8,000 every year until at least 2015."
Of course, bridge collapse was what the government had us freaking out about/spending money on in 2007, so that's old news now.  Now trains are cool!

Just a lot of rambling thoughts produced by a ride on the People Mover.  Probably the most productive thing the People Mover has done since 1987.


  1. The People Mover sees plenty of business during downtown events like festivals, hockey games, the Auto Shows, and such. The key issue with the People Mover is it was designed before the decline of downtown. Increased ridership would go further to offset operational costs.

    Detroit is the only major city without any form of rail transit. Vibrant cities have rail transit. Transit is a regional matter, not just the city. You can thank former Gov. Engler for vetoing regional transit 8 years ago just before he slithered out of town.

    Woodward's M-1 light rail project from Hart Plaza to the New Center will link downtown with Detroit's prominant retail area. The Amtrak station is there. And in between is the Cultural Center, DMC, Foxtown and the stadia, and Campus Martius.

    I'm convinced the People Mover and M-1 will feed riders to each other, part of the original People Mover concept. I concede the phase I 3.4 mile distance is not ideal, I think it's viable because it connects downtown with the New Center. When phase II extends the line to the State Fairgrounds, it will become better utilized. I'd much rather park at 8 Mile and ride downtown than fight traffic outbound at the end of an event, like the fireworks.

    There is already some discussion about Ferndale extending the line to 10 Mile. What benefit to Detroiters if they could take light rail to the Detroit Zoo. In any case, it looks like the line will break the 8 Mile barrier.

    One other thing to note. There is pretty solid evidence that rail transit spurs development. Beyond the initial construction jobs, this project promises longer term benefit to Detroit.

  2. Here's something we aren't allowed to mention. White suburbanites don't want to give Detroit blacks easier access to their neighborhoods and stores. Why? Here's one example. There is not one national chain grocery store operating in Detroit. Gang violence in and around the stores scared away customers, and shoplifting by employees and customers more than erased any profit margin. Why should white suburbanites be taxed millions to light rail blacks to their neighborhoods and stores? Also, whites won't use the rail system. Few whites feel safe driving a car south of 8 mile, let alone taking a train filled with blacks.