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High-speed buses, instead of light rail, make sense for Detroit

There’s a sense of gloom throughout the mass transit community in Michigan today. Earlier this week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that he was canceling the long-talked about light rail line to be built up Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

They’ve been discussing light rail in the Woodward corridor for more than forty years. Few remember now, but Detroit’s much ridiculed People Mover was originally intended as the embryo of such a system, to which it would later be connected. Recently, light rail was thought to be only a matter of time.

But this week, the Transportation Secretary killed the project -- with the support of both Governor Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. He did so for a familiar reason: Money. He said Detroit just didn’t have the funding to make light rail work.

Motown couldn’t come up with the necessary matching funds to get the system built, and more importantly, didn’t have the at least $10 million a year needed to run the system.

Within hours, I got a press release from the pro-rail group Transportation Riders United denouncing the decision. Senator Carl Levin was also unhappy, especially that a group of investors who had raised a hundred million for the project weren’t consulted.

But you know what? I am convinced that canceling the project was absolutely the right decision, because they are offering something much more practical and perhaps even better in its place.

High speed buses. The plan now is to build a system of high-speed bus lanes all over the metropolitan area and equip it with a fleet of modern buses that are more comfortable, go much faster, and are equipped with technology that allow them to control traffic signals, so they don’t have to stop for red lights.

The rapid bus system can be built much faster and cheaper, and unlike the light rail plan, would thoroughly connect the city with the suburbs. The initial plan is to have nine stations each in Macomb and Oakland Counties and 16 in Wayne County, which includes Detroit. The system might also go to Pontiac and Ann Arbor.

This could all be up and running within less than five years. My guess is that building light rail would have taken billions and taken much longer. Getting light rail done was contingent on the city paying to run it, and right now, that wouldn’t have been a safe bet. Detroit is fast running out of cash, and Emergency Manager status and even bankruptcy may be only months away.

The key thing now is for everybody concerned to stop fighting battles that are over and work hard to make this project a success.

Unlike light rail, rapid bus has much stronger support among suburban leaders, including the executives of all three major counties. Congress is seen as more likely to support it, too. In recent years, one of Voltaire’s old sayings has been revived in management circles: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Any better area-wide mass transit in Southeast Michigan would definitely be a good thing. Most people who live in Detroit have jobs outside the city, and more folks would have jobs if they could figure out how to get to them. This is the way. Now, let’s get it done.

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