People Mover in Detroit Seen as Transit Disaster

Times Staff Writer

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.

The conditions were ripe for a crisis. Federal officials allowed the project, conceived as an experiment that would test new technology, to issue a cost-plus contract to a Canadian developer, because no one knew how much such a system would really cost.

And, despite the fact that its technology was untested, ground was broken for the People Mover in 1983 after only 3.6% of the engineering work on the site had been completed, according to Michael Niemann, spokesman for the Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority, the regional transit agency that initially administered the project.

Inevitably, problems soon developed. Drastic design changes were required because of the lack of engineering studies, and the route was continually altered to accommodate new developments, such as the expansion of Detroit's convention center.

With no lid on costs, overruns quickly mounted. From an initial budget of $137 million, the People Mover's price has risen by $73 million, and could rise further. Just last week, federal officials, charging that the People Mover's engineering design costs are already triple the national average for similar mass transit projects, issued new warnings that an additional $14-million worth of overruns are on the way. That would push the system's total cost to $224 million.

100-Ton Beams Cracking

What's worse, many of the overhead track's 100-ton guideway beams began to crack soon after they were erected. They have had to be replaced, resulting in construction hang-ups that have helped delay the system's scheduled opening from the beginning of 1986 to the spring of 1987.

At least 32 of the system's 173 guideway beams did not have enough concrete to cover their steel reinforcing bars and had to be destroyed, while an additional 96 must receive further preventive maintenance, according to Niemann. And, 16 of the system's 183 support pillars, which hold the overhead beams in place, also cracked and had to be repaired.

Now, a debate is raging between federal and local officials over whether the People Mover will actually be used once it is finished.

Ralph L. Stanley, administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration and chief People Mover critic, predicts that only 10,000 to 15,000 riders each day will pay the 40-cent fare to ride the system. The Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority disagrees, but last week it drastically reduced its earlier, more optimistic daily ridership figures and now estimates that only about 35,000 people will use the system each day. That figure represents only about one-third of the city's 110,000 downtown office workers and is well below the 55,000 target needed for the People Mover to break even.

In retrospect, city officials believe that the inexperience of everyone involved in the project led to the system's troubles. The Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority had never supervised a big construction project and lacked an experienced staff to do so; and the contractor, Urban Transportation Development Corp. of Toronto, had never built such a big system.

'Carelessly Handled'

"I would not go into any kind of system that big or untried again without having checked out every conceivable bit of experience needed to get the job done, and I don't think that was done," said Erma Henderson, president of the Detroit City Council and a member of the new city transit board. "If it was done, it was carelessly handled."

Despite all of its problems, however, the People Mover's supporters insist that it will bring people back downtown and contend that developers have already committed $345 million to new real estate projects along the People Mover route.

"It will still serve as an excellent system for moving people around downtown," even without the suburban light rail system, Brodie argues.

The People Mover's critics are not convinced, though, and they note that it will not help the residents of Detroit's outlying neighborhoods, who now rely on the city's deteriorated bus system to shop and get to work.

"The worst part of it is, this system won't do anything for the poor people in Detroit who need mass transportation," Whyte of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration charges. "It'll only be used by people in the downtown office buildings to get to lunch."

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