Monday, December 19, 2011

The Cold, Hard Truth About Bus Rapid Transit

Mayor Dave Bing and Governor Rick Snyder announced last week that they were abruptly cancelling the proposed Woodward Light Rail system; opting instead to focus on what they are referring to as a "bus rapid transit" system that will connect downtown Detroit with M-59 in northern Oakland and Macomb Counties. Mayor Bing argues that this will do a better job of servicing the needs of Detroiters; comparing his proposal with bus rapid transit systems in other major cities, such as Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Quite frankly, I believe that Mayor Bing and his supporters are being highly disingenuous, if not downright deceptive, in how they are portraying the bus system that they talk about in the news media.

Our neighbors in Cleveland have a bus rapid transit system, one that Mayor Bing points to as an example what they will be able to create by cancelling the Woodward Light Rail project and moving the funds to his suburban bus project. There is no arguing that the Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has an amazing bus rapid transit system. I would prefer to have a light rail system, but if Mayor Bing wanted to create a system that is somewhat similar to Cleveland's then that would be a compromise that I could live with.

However, Mayor Bing isn't proposing something that would look anything like that. To illustrate my point, I would like to showcase a few numbers.

The Cleveland RTA spent $113.6 million to construct their 9 mile long bus rapid transit system in 1993. In today's dollars, that works out to $168.3 million - or $18.7 million of today's dollars per mile of rapid transit.

Mayor Bing argues that he will be able to create a comparable system - one that will service 110 miles of territory from downtown Detroit north to M-59 - for only $500 million. This, of course, works out to only $4.5 million per mile in construction costs - 76% less that what the Cleveland RTA spent on their system.

One has to wonder: how exactly is Mayor Bing going to cut the construction costs for this system by 76% without sacrificing quality?

Of course, Cleveland isn't the only example of bus rapid transit in the country. The numbers from those system all make Mayor Bing's claim seem that much more dubious.

Bus rapid transit systems typically cost an average of $13.5 million per mile, according to a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office that was released in September, 2001. In today's dollars, that would bring the average cost up to $16.9 million per mile - almost four times what Mayor Bing says it will cost to build his alternative system to the suburbs.

I simply do not believe that Mayor Bing will be able to deliver anything remotely close to what he is talking about for the price that he is naming. If he were able to deliver a project - any project, really, from police protection to mass transit - for 75% less than what everyone else pays for it then one would have to ask why he hasn't already done such a thing in his Administration.

Mayor Bing can't get police officers to show up when they're needed, even though the Detroit Police Department has one of the largest budgets in the nation, but he expects us to believe that he will somehow be able to create a bus system for 75% less money than anyone else.

Mayor Bing can't keep street lights on or roads maintained, even though the overall size of Detroit budget is above average for major cities in the United States on a per resident basis, but he expects us to believe that he will some be able to create a bus system for 75% less money than anyone else.

All of this simply strains credibility. There is really no way to put it. If Mayor Bing were able to get the job done on a consistent basis for dramatically less money than anyone else, he should have been able to do it by now. Unfortunately, his Administration hasn't even been able to get the job done when they have more money that comparable cities.

I am reminded, in all of this, of the old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Something smells fishy here, my fellow Detroiters. Really, really fishy.

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