Detroit succumbs to Light Rail Mania

Originally posted elsewhere on 10/20/2010 Take a look at this ReasonTV video about a light-rail project in Detroit that’s slated to begin next year. If you haven’t been following Detroit’s sad decline, you should know that portions of Detroit resemble scenes from a post-apocalyptic movie because so many of the homes are vacant. In areas where entire city blocks have been drained of people, the city has actually demolished these homes allowing their lots to revert back to prairie… urban prairie. The population in Detroit is half what it was in 1950.


The video’s strongest proponent for the project was Michigan state Rep. (D) Marie Donigan, who represents the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. From my perspective, these are Rep. Donigan’s most notable quotes:

  • Donigan quote:

    So we have a limited pool of public money, right? Is that what you’re saying? ‘Cause we only have … there’s only so much money in the world ever… Well, obviously that’s not true… If that was the case then if we wanted to build a new school in Royal Oak, for instance, we’d say, “We cannot build another school in Royal Oak because we only have so much money.”

    Me: I was shocked to see this legislator reject the notion that public resources were limited. Legislators holding this view obviously feel no need to prioritize how tax revenue should be spent. From the way government behaves at all levels, it would appear that many politicians share her view. Still it kind of hurt to hear it said out loud.

  • Donigan quote:

    It’s going to take a huge effort to educate the public about this system, whatever this system is that’s going to be built … to educate them, to help them understand the value of public transportation.

    Me: If I were a venture capitalist and Marie Donigan was pitching this light rail project to me as an investment opportunity, I’d be seeing red flags as she explained how an extensive, commercial campaign would be required to “educate” my potential customers on the value of my service. That’s basically the same as saying there’s currently no demand for this service, and if the venture is to have any chance at success, I’ll have to create demand for it by plowing money into commercials.

  • Donigan quote:

    When we have the opportunity to rebuild an entire, urban center, which for me as a person with a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, that is truly exciting.

    Me: This really tied into something that I was reading about in Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Hayek’s concern is that whenever specialists play a role in deciding how tax revenue is to be spent, they always overvalue their own field of expertise and consequently misdirect too much of the state’s limited resources to developing projects related to their specialty. In this case Donigan has exerted an influence in proceeding with light rail, but she’s not been the final decider. However the real worry here is that as more and more governance moves from legislative bodies to regulatory bodies, the specialists within regulatory bodies almost invariably overestimate the importance of factors within their specialty, disregarding the broader impact of their regulations on the general welfare.

In case you are wondering on who’s funding this boondoggle, here’s a breakdown of the funding sources according to

  • $125 million – Private philanthropists
  • $55 million – Detroit Department of Transportation
  • $320 million (or whatever the remainder is) – Federal funding



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