The streetcar that runs in second gear

It should take six months to build a new trolley line through downtown Detroit, says the order in which the route will be constructed. But those orders come with a surcharge. It could cost…

The streetcar that runs in second gear

It should take six months to build a new trolley line through downtown Detroit, says the order in which the route will be constructed. But those orders come with a surcharge. It could cost $54 million to build the route out from Union Park to downtown and north to Livernois Avenue. Otherwise, the route must start out north at the usual spot near Newburgh Street and run up the street for 10 blocks. The cost of alternate routes: $1.5 million. Why the different pricing? Because now, streetcar track is stored curbside.

It’s a cost-saving measure for the streetcar system, a spokesman for the Detroit Department of Transportation tells Civil Beat. The less expensive alternative means getting the tracks wet is less of a concern. From there, the tracks are hauled up to the dispatch station at Lee Street and Agnes during a winter frosty period. You do, however, get to give the rails a gentle buff and fluff of snow, the CDOT spokesman says.

“The bus is still miles behind in terms of current modernization efforts,” says Jonathan Bowles, a transportation researcher at the Brookings Institution, who says this approach is justified. “It just makes sense.”

Bowles did not specifically oppose the route north to Lennox. Yet, he disagrees with the CDOT spokesman, who calls the alternate route a “differentiated service” by its logic, saying other transit improvements can’t compete.

And how do the cost differences for the northerly route compare to other lines?

According to the US Transportation Department’s Toxics Release Inventory, there are only 31 instances of horse manure being found on the tracks at Union Park.

Several recent construction projects in the city have gone over budget, says Cliff Caplan, a transportation analyst at the Center for American Progress. Those included a new Grand River course for the Detroit Tigers, an underwater tunnel on the riverfront and the expansion of the Ilitch family’s Little Caesars Arena. In that context, another additional cost of streetcar fare from the north route, just to have one less route, is a little hollow.

Is the cost justification different in other cities?

“No, not really,” says Olia Halic, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

But given the thoroughgoing and multiple studies of which authority is in charge of streetcar line construction, with the city of Detroit calling the shots and Detroit’s Act I of 1979 setting up that authority, the initial justification for the up-north route may have been driven from a different place. Public Transportation USA research suggests that even more underground structures are being needed on the Detroit route due to weather or other costs.

The councilman chosen to deal with this proposal says it’s too late to change course.

“They can’t blame everyone else,” says Chad Taylor, who represents Union Park. “It’s too late for us. They’ve already shown no good alternatives.”

Leave a Comment