The QLine, initially known as the M-1 Rail, is a streetcar running three miles along Woodward Ave. in Detroit. It has not lived up to any of the overwrought promises advocates made. Fiscal conservatives and transit advocates alike criticize the line, which has never seen significant ridership.
So, of course the state government is stepping in to subsidize it.
In 2011, the main transportation group promoting a transit line on Woodward Avenue, Transportation Riders United, claimed that the QLine would be “a proven investment in Detroit’s future.” The group was specific: In an op-ed debate with me, Megan Owens, the group’s executive director, said the light rail line would lead to job creation, a jump in retail sales, a boost in property values and population growth:
The City of Detroit has partnered with top business leaders, institutions, and foundations to create Michigan’s first new rail transit system. Woodward Light Rail will be a modern electric train running within the road providing quick and convenient travel up and down Woodward Avenue. It will connect workers to jobs, students to job training, customers to local businesses, patients to hospitals, visitors to local attractions, and residents to their daily needs.
An op-ed from the Mackinac Center was skeptical, comparing the QLine to past failed promises from transit advocates:
Detroit has many problems, but they are not the kind that can be solved with one more flashy project. The city’s high taxes, burdensome regulations, poor schools and dysfunctional city government are holding Detroit down, not a shortage of subsidized boondoggles. The starting point for reversing the decline is addressing such problems with market-friendly policies that make the city inviting to entrepreneurs and investors. Proponents of the Woodward light rail line promise it will be an economic miracle, helping to revive downtown Detroit and return the city to its former glory. In a sense, they’re right: It would be a miracle if this project does anything but waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Well, the results are in. The QLine does not have a designated lane and has to stop at lights (and cars parking in front of it). Total ridership peaked at over 5,000 people per day initially, but that didn’t last. Today, it gets just over 2,000 and doesn’t appear to be coming out of the transit slump that was exacerbated by COVID, even though the line is free to riders. It is subject to much criticism and parody.
This doesn’t matter to state lawmakers. Until 2039, the QLine will get government subsidies of $5 million per year, or around $2,500 per daily rider.
The president of M1 Rail, the nonprofit operator of the Qline says the train’s “undeniable” impact is worth the public subsidy. The line is “public transit, which requires public support for long-term sustainability,” Lisa Nuszkowski wrote in a recent letter to the Detroit Free Press. “This is true for every transit system in the country. There was never any promise or illusion to the contrary.”
But the main point of transit is to move a lot of people conveniently and efficiently. Advocates of a line on Woodward made specific predictions which did not materialize. Few would argue the line creates jobs or boosts sales, incomes and population over what the system costs. Ridership on public transit across Michigan, generally speaking, continues to decline despite massive government subsidies. It’s time to rethink public transit.
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