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People Mover in Detroit Seen as Transit Disaster

December 08, 1985|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — The Detroit People Mover, the 2.9-mile automated rail system under construction in a loop above this city's downtown district, is over budget and behind schedule, has lost its central purpose and tends to fall apart. To top it all off, federal transit officials don't think very many people will ride it once it is finished.

Otherwise, it has been a huge success. At least for local jokers, that is, who would be lost if they didn't have the People Mover, which looks a lot like the Disneyland monorail, to kick around. Whether they call it the train to nowhere, the mugger mover or the downtown bobsled run, the message is the same: The People Mover is widely seen as a huge boondoggle and a classic example of government bureaucracy run rampant.

Now, although the $210-million People Mover--80% financed by the federal government--will not start running until the spring of 1987, the post-mortems by local, state and federal officials trying to understand how this project went so supremely wrong have already begun.

"There is enough blame to pass around to everybody," said Dorothy Brodie, head of a new city transit board that has just taken control of the People Mover away from the Detroit area's regional transit authority, after charges of mismanagement.

"I'm faced with the conclusion now that it is under construction and that it would seem pointless to turn back," added Detroit City Councilman Mel Ravitz. "But, if we were starting over, I'd say, 'Don't build it.' "

Meanwhile, it took all of the political savvy and influence of Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young--who still believes that the People Mover will spur economic development downtown--just to keep the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration from following through with threats to refuse to pay for the system's massive cost overruns. That would have left Young with a forest of precast concrete pillars cluttering his downtown.

Although they ultimately relented, federal transportation officials still regard the Detroit People Mover as one of the worst standing jokes among the nation's mass transit projects.

"Nobody there took responsibility for anything, nobody watched the money," Bonnie Whyte, spokeswoman for the federal agency, charged. "And then they came to us and said, 'We are way over budget and need more money.' "

Mass transit specialists outside the federal government are more sympathetic, but they still shudder over Detroit's problems.

"But for the grace of God, there goes every major transit project in the country," said Jack Gilstrap, executive vice president of the Washington-based American Public Transit Assn.

Almost L.A.'s Headache

The People Mover is a headache that almost came to Los Angeles instead; as early as 1976, a long list of metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, was in the running for federal funds to build showcase People Movers. Beginning with the Gerald R. Ford Administration, the federal government had high hopes of building similar systems throughout the nation if the new automated guideway technology proved successful in the demonstration projects.

Only the Detroit and Miami systems were saved by Congress from the Reagan Administration's budget ax in 1981 and 1982, and the federal funds earmarked for the Los Angeles system were eventually reallocated to those two cities. Now, both the Detroit and Miami systems are in trouble, and it seems highly unlikely that the Administration will ever finance any more such projects.

The history, and the problems, of the Detroit system began long ago.

The idea seemed sound enough to Detroit planners in the mid-1970s: build an overhead monorail that would zip thousands of commuters from their cars to their offices and elsewhere around downtown.

The real key to the project was a plan to link up with a proposed light rail system that would drop suburban commuters off downtown; the commuters could then board the People Mover and ride it to stops near their offices. Local planners hoped the ease of rail commuting would once again attract businesses and professional workers downtown, after so many had deserted the city in the wake of Detroit's bloody 1967 riots.

Suburbanites Shun City

Since then, however, Detroit has lost about a third of its population, the downtown area has lost its last big department store and many suburbanites still shun the central city. Meanwhile, federal funding for the giant light rail project never materialized, so plans for a "feeder" rail system providing riders for the People Mover have been scrapped.

Left with a dwindling population base and no light rail system with which to connect, the People Mover lost its original function. The planners went ahead anyway, because a construction contract had already been awarded and the federal funds, which by law could not be used locally for other purposes, had been approved.

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