Friday, July 19, 2013

Detroit finally falls, still lacking rail transit

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The slow-motion car crash, 60 years running, has finally reached its point of no return. Detroit has fiscally fallen. And it's still without serious rail transit to help it.

Here's one rail observer, one American urban dweller with few ties to the Motor City, who is truly sad on both counts. They're linked.

Detroil M1 LRT artconcept

Detroit's inevitable bankruptcy was as predictable as the auto metaphor used to open this piece, but not enough Americans of any stripe, including Yoopers and those former residents fleeing to Florida, seemed to care overmuch during a six-decade span.

One notable exception: the private-sector parties in Detroit still scrambling to offer meaningful rail transit options to Detroit's dwindling population. Those include Penske Corp. founder Roger Penske, whose fortune has been generated from truck rentals and car sales—clearly the warrior personified for the supposed "War on Cars"—advancing the M1 streetcar project, backed now by federal funding, as city boosters strive to launch a rail revival.

But Detroit defaulted, and before the threat of any meaningful rail which, anti-rail types often contend, can destroy a city's "quality of life."

Sure, I'm running the risk of oversimplying a complex historical, demographic, and political picture; Detroit's decline from fourth-largest U.S. city to simply the largest urban bankruptcy in U.S. history (affecting 700,000 residents directly, others as well) will be parsed and dissected for some time to come. But I've no doubt – none at all – that rail transit's continuing absence, beginning with the retirement of the city's PCCs in the 1950s, played a part.

Take a look at the list of U.S. cities that flirted with bankruptcy and somehow avoided same in the past six decades. New York. Cleveland. Philadelphia. The sky was falling, but people of modest means were still able to get to their jobs, using cars and buses and trains. And even the people who participated in the mass urban exodus of post WWII America not yet totally detached from evil urban cores had access – rail access – and used it.

I experienced New York's very dark times in the 1970s, and that's probably why Detroit's fall makes me wince as it does. The past is prologue, and oddly still fresh in my mind 38 years later. It still rankles me when folks at a rail gathering these days, learning that I'm an elitist East Coast urban rat, wonder or posit – sometimes sincerely, more often with big, fat crocodile tears – how I made it through, why I stayed, how I can possibly stay now, by choice, a believer in New York and in urban America.

So far, I've refrained from replying with a stereotypical, colorful New York euphemistic response. Better to stay with a stock answer. "New York is a dinosaur too stupid to know how to die," a friend of mine once said, but T-Rex isn't just back; it roars. Oh, and when I discover a car problem in the morning, I note it, maybe phone the dealer to make an appointment, then head off to work, unimpeded. I've got rail. Do you?

A cursory examination of a comparable list of locales that didn't avoid default (dumber dinosaurs?) finds many (most?) of them don't have a significant urban rail option. Jefferson County, Ala., for instance. Or Stockton, Calif. True, San Bernadino, Calif., does have Metrolink and Amtrak service, and that city defaulted, so there's one exception noted – maybe even a harbinger of hope for Detroit and its M1 streetcar plans. 

Detroit, one might argue, has had** urban rail options, after a fashion, including a heritage trolley and a downtown automated people mover (APV). I nearly played the role of Wile E. Coyote on my first trip to Detroit, marveling at tracks in the sidewalk before looking up in time to see a trolley looming ahead. And I used the Detroit People Mover on business. I'm not sure either is adequate to address Detroit's real rail needs.

My trips to and from Detroit have employed air travel, but I made it a point once to visit the near-empty hulk of Detroit's Michigan Central Station, once accompanied by venerable Tiger Stadium, at midday. The place was nearly empty. Some station platform tracks had trees growing through them (some of them four inches in diameter). My heart broke. No wonder some Americans couldn't take Amtrak seriously. No wonder SEMTA regional rail service faltered and failed. No wonder I relish the joie de vivre of Grand Central Terminal back home.

Critics and cynics might assert that bus transit, or Bus Rapid Transit, can, could, or should do the job alone. I'm not convinced. More important, neither are the private-sector players advancing Detroit's M1 Rail streetcar project, who (I have no doubt) must have seen this slow-motion mess coming to its conclusion more clearly than I, more clearly than most. Buses are part of the package, but not the whole deal. That's a lot more enlightened than the "War on Cars" warriors spouting nonsense throughout North America (don't want to leave out the mayor of Toronto or my Canadian brethren).

I must believe that many other cities across North America have similar thoughts, have drawn similar conclusions, based on the number of those cities I see trying to implement new rail starts, grow existing systems, improve old(er) systems already in place. The efforts span the continent, no longer a coastal (or even bicoastal) phenomenon or a "crazy Canadian" diversion or the frenzy of Blue State radicals. They span a variety of rail modes, with some municipalities even all in on more than one mode (Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City among the expansive relative newcomers).

Too bad Detroit isn't among those cities for now. One can hope that bankruptcy, for all its disruption and pain, doesn't delay rail transit's much-needed arrival in the Motor City. The M1 streetcar won't solve so many of the city's woes. But it will be oh-so-necessary for any revival or comeback of any kind. Car manufacturing is what Detroit necessarily does. But auto alternatives are something Detroit needs.

**Update, July 31, 2013: Several readers kindly noted that Detroit's heritage trolley ceased operation in 2003, making my original present-tense assertion in error. The verb tense has been adjusted to reflect that reality, paradoxically (in my view) furthering the argument that much more strenuously; my thanks to the sharp-eyed.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.