One year in, Detroit’s QLine falling well short of expectations

The QLine, the $140 million electric train that runs through Midtown and downtown Detroit, averaged more than five stoppages per week in its first year.

After a year of constant problems, the shiny electric streetcar that hums down Detroit’s main thoroughfare has proven more troubled than trusty.

The QLine, the privately operated streetcar that launched along 3.3 miles of Woodward Avenue last May, attracted less than half of its projected riders for several months its first year, as it was beset by traffic snarls and dwindling popularity.

The train that reaches top speeds of 30 mph averaged more than five stoppages a week, a total of 267, and was frequently operating behind schedule due to parked cars on its tracks and traffic jams near the Little Caesars Arena.

Records obtained by Bridge Magazine show the streetcar fell well short of expectations of 5,000 to 8,000 riders per day.

Daily riders averaged 2,700 from November through March, down from 4,322 per day from May to October, when four of those months rides were free of charge. The QLine began its fees of $1.50 for three-hour passes in September.

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And just 130 people in the city of more than 650,000 bought annual passes, while 741 bought monthly ones (an average of less than 100 per month) since they went on sale in September, according to M-1 Rail, the nonprofit that operates the streetcar.

“Ridership is one measure of success. It’s an important measure. It’s not the only measure,” said Dan Lijana, spokesman for the M-1 RAIL.

“The first hurdle that the QLine helped overcome was to demonstrate to the federal and state government that a large-scale transit project in Detroit could bring together the community,” Lijana said. “It did.”

Wealth, commerce parallel QLine

Nearly half of all new construction since 2013 is occurring in the sliver of area that straddles the QLine. It's also running through some of the wealthiest and youngest areas of Detroit.

Funded by federal grants and private donations, the QLine’s operations are subsidized by private donors until 2027. After that, officials plans to transfer oversight to the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, which could ask voters this November for a $5.4 billion, 20-year tax to add express buses and other improvements.

Negotiations are ongoing about the regional plan, and now is not a good time for bad news, said Andy LaBarre, chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.

“Positive news is positive, negative news is negative,” said LaBarre, who supports the tax proposal.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who is leading discussions on the wider transit plan, remains confident the QLine can be an asset to the region.

“Any transit system is going to take time to build ridership and it’s important to keep QLine in the proper perspective, it’s just one piece of the transit puzzle. If you look at QLine’s impact holistically, it demonstrates the overall benefits of transit, particularly with economic impact,” Khalil Rahal, assistant Wayne County executive said in an email.

First year hiccups?

Lijana and others described the QLine’s problems as first-year hiccups that will get resolved. He said many problems stem from motorist education. The QLine’s tracks weave through traffic. Some stations are curbside, while others are in the middle of Woodward.

M-1 RAIL is working with officials from the city, state and Little Caesars Arena to ensure the streetcar has a clear path down Woodward, Lijana said.

The worst ridership occurred during the coldest months, when plowed snow piles forced cars to park on the tracks. About 30 percent of the stoppages were in December and January, Lijana said. In two weeks alone, vehicles parked near snow piles stopped the QLine more than 50 times, he said.

QLine ridership fell short of its goal of reaching 5,000-riders per day. Snow, traffic jams and illegally parked cars partially were to blame. (Photo by Chastity Pratt Dawsey)

Ridership in April was up by 1,200 people per day to about 3,900, and Lijana said that’s an encouraging sign for its second year. The streetcar, which has an operational budget of $5.8 million, grossed nearly $1 million in revenues from fares and grants.

“New systems take time to mature, (for) people to understand their options and ridership to grow,” said Mario Morrow, spokesman for the Regional Transit Authority.

“As Detroit grows, so will the numbers for the QLine. We will continue to support the QLine, and do whatever we need to do in our power to make it a success.”

Keys to success

Some had hoped the QLine one day could serve as a link in a regional transit plan that includes buses to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and light rail. In 2017, just as the streetcars began service, operators expressed optimism that the QLine could be extended within 10 years.

But the streetcars haven't been a central part of the discussions about the future of transit in Southeast Michigan, said Bill Mullan, a spokesman for Oakland County.

He said the county’s major concern about the QLine is ensuring that its operations aren’t assumed by the Regional Transit Authority before 2027.

“If the QLine were to come on board out of private hands it could be competing for same limited transit money that (suburban and city bus systems) are getting,” he said. “You can see how we’d want to hold that off.”

Megan Owens, executive director for Transportation Riders United advocacy group, said the QLine succeeded in introducing transit to people who never ride the bus.

But she said it needs to be faster and more frequent. The streetcars are supposed to arrive every 15 minutes.

“It will be hard for the QLine to be part of a daily commute for people if it’s not more reliable,” she said. “I do think ridership will increase as the system improves.”

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Comments

Matt
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 7:56am

A shocking story of a mass transit system not meeting the promised projections. Who'd imagine such a thing? And in Detroit no less! Since they off loaded their debt they have extra money for these ventures. Oh when they say it takes time for these systems to mature, read, for tax payers to forget about the promised benefits, financial drain and responsible parties to move on to other pastures (suckers)! Maybe Grand Rapids can trade them for the authors of the Silver Line? This what happens when ever cities and government entities have any perceived "extra" money and they should be kept perpetually broke!

Jeff
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 11:02am

Matt - Do you know how the Q-Line was financed?

Kevin Grand
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 1:19pm

Jeff,

Do you know how the backers of the Q-Line eventually want it operations eventually paid for?

Hint: It isn't out of their own pocket.

Arjay
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 1:38pm

Jeff - Do you know that a Federal grant is just another hand reaching into my pocket to transfer my money to another jurisdiction. Taxes are taxes, no matter if they are local, state, or federal. I just love it the way they always write about federal grants and private donations. If a project costs $100 Million, and someone donates 50 cents, it is correct to say federal grants and private donations. What is the true breakdown? Why does Bridge not tell the real truth but always tries to spin something that is negative into a positive?

Matt
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 3:01pm

Yes! Donations (which are completely deductible and fungible) and federal money (which comes from tax payers too!). And now they are starting to come to the local tax payers as well, if that is the point you want to make?

Don S
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 4:54pm

Jeff, do you know how the Gilbertville Trolley was financed?

And please, let's see all the expenditures, from every source. Federal, State, Local, and private. Including all the re-building of Woodward Ave, and freeway bridges, and all the re-location of utilities.

All of which were done expressly to build the boondoggle.

Yes, let's see a full accounting of every dime

mary therese lemanek
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 9:34am

A lot of money and chaos for "transportation" that is so limited and meets the needs of so few who really could benefit from a decent transit system.

Jimmy
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 9:50am

"The worst ridership occurred during the coldest months, when plowed snow piles forced cars to park on the tracks."

Do "cars" park on the tracks? Or is it the people driving those cars?

Dan
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 8:14pm

Plus, there is no one 'forcing' those drivers to park on the tracks. They choose to.

James Buslepp
Sat, 05/05/2018 - 6:31am

If a car is parked on the tracks, tow it. Tow it now. Blocking the tracks interferes with everyone riding the train for the convenience of one driver. That should not be tolerated.

Michael C. Scholtz
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 10:02am

The federal government allowed the electric trains, that used to go all over this state, to be destroyed by private and corporate interests for private financial gain. It is up to the federal government to restore them. People would use rapid transit IF: it was rapid and it went someplace they wanted to go! A short jaunt down Woodward was okay to get the bugs out of the operating system, but very few folks will ride it. Build a working system and the people will use it.

James Thornton
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 2:05pm

Amen. The old Ele, trains ran in left middle lanes when they ran,.Away from curb side lane. When the old Ele cars ran there was less cars any way on the roads. Somebody somewhere there is doing their best to get someone else to do a bad job. All these people are making money for them selves. They are doing their best to not spend money for the most people. Look they can not even spend properly to keep the roads in good condition for the automobiles. The average cost for a car hit by the potholes in Michigan, probably has gone up to $850 a car. This does not include the cost that should be spent to stop the $850 per car from being spent.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 12:21pm

In my opinion, the QLine will never pay for itself, nor will the proposed rail line to Traverse City. Even highly-used Amtrak has to be heavily subsidized. Mass transit in Michigan should not be expected to pay for itself or be self-supporting, as the necessary ridership is just not there.

Don S
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 4:48pm

What's your point?

The correct solution, for the greatest number of people's benefit, is just not to build these perpetually subsidized boondoggle drains on taxpayers.

Or, have the riders pay the full cost of construction, operation, governance, and maintenance, at the fare box.

Let Michigan transit users lead the way to the proper funding of transit.

Kevin
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 12:27pm

They need to make some adjustments where they can and there are many that can't be made because they didn't follow "best practices" when it was built. Dedicate the lane it runs in to only the Q-Line. Put up barriers to prevent cars blocking it. Also, remove parallel parking between the line and the curb. Again, didn't follow 'best practices'. Build more bypass tracks so that the trains can keep moving when one is stuck. Implement signal priority technology so the train 'holds' a green light to allow it to keep moving. Make it free to pull all of those folks that think parking a car is cheaper. Also, the city needs to make parking more expensive to force ridership. Finally, expand it and follow best practices on any extensions.

Don S
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 4:57pm

No!

Arjay
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 1:28pm

No surprise here. Remember this when it is time to vote to give the authorities perpetual access to your funds via an increased property tax. Detroiters will avoid paying anything, while the Western Wayne taxpayers who will never use the system will fund the debacle.

The People Mover - total bust for almost 40 years. The Q Line - terrible in its first year and headed downward. Grand Rapids - I don’t know the exact details but it appears to be another taxpayer funded system.

When will we ever learn?

Thomas E Page
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 2:21pm

Way way way too early to judge the QLine. It's already paid for itself many times over with the development it has spurred. Wait til the shops start opening up in New Center....an easy QLine link for conventioneers, tourists, and residents alike. The QLine has worked great for me! In the worse weather this winter I was able to hop on it and get downtown without incident. Buses -as good as they can be - do not spur the interest or the development that fixed rail does. Now is the time to start pushing to extend the M1 to 8 Mile. Highland Park will IMMEDIATELY take off with new development.

John Q. Public
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 7:27pm

How do you figure, Thomas? Quantify, if you will, the $140 million in net (that's net, mind you) new value that has occurred, and would not have but for the existence of the QLine. I won't even hold you to the "many times over."

JustSaySo
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 3:10pm

It is a great novelty item but you think after subsidizing the People Mover after all these years, they would have learned. This money losing issue comes on the heels of the Great Downtown Atlanta Trolley esca-PAID! They too had a great hope that the their trolley would be an asset to the downtown area. Instead they had to 'rethink the problem' as they had low ridership after the government had to subsidized free ridership and after that too many patrons were riding without paying, they developed and PAID alot for self service token kiosks that were too smart for the public to utilize so they had to hired kiosk attendants to help the public buy their tokens, they hired transit police force to enforce token use..... still did not meet the threshold for breaking even, so the management gave the System to MARTA (local government transit authority) to wash their hands so that MARTA would be better able to 'sell' the money losing system to the taxpayer for increased millage! Watch out Detroit, history will repeat itself in Motown again!

Reggie Dunlop
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 4:23pm

This article contains every overhyped booster cliche there is. “Positive news is positive, negative news is negative,” said Chance the Gardener.

History will remember the QLine as a high-visibility boondoggle.

Waterboy
Tue, 05/01/2018 - 9:39pm

My knowledge of mass transit systems is limited, but I know every great urban city has one. San Francisco, Portland, Denver. etc.
I especially like the Denver 16th street rail system. It is a great link between the two transit hubs on either side of the city making it possible to travel the metropolitan area without a vehicle. Oops, is that heresy in the motor Capitol?

Robert Lawson
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 9:09am

1. The Q Line connects one destination to another and this is a problem. True transit systems connect a population center to a destination. If the Q Line at least reached 8 Mile, that would attract scores of people who are only one bus away from Woodward.

2. The Q Line is too slow. I took my youngest son on a trip on the Q just to try it out, no cars parked on the tracks, it took us nearly an hour to get back to our starting point. One hour for 6.6 miles is atrocious. Yes it needs to be on time, but even more than that it needs to be quick.

Don S
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 5:04pm

Robert Lawson
1) There are already buses running up and down Woodward from 8 Mile to downtown. You can take a bus now without taxpayers paying more for your Q-Line ride, and all the ludicrous construction costs.

2) How long does it take the buses to do the same trip? I'd venture a guess it's less than an hour.

John Q. Public
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 10:43am

"...grossed nearly $1 million in revenues from fares and grants."

Fares accounted for $417,000--a little more than 7% of the $5.8 million operating budget.

Don S
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 5:05pm

Why bring up inconvenient facts when pie-in-the-sky is at stake?

John Q. Public
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 10:46am

I think the headline is a misnomer. While ridership is well below the projections made by the QLine PR department, it's pretty much in line with the expectations of those who are continually written off as "naysayers".

Don S
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 5:13pm

Shut up, and open your wallet!

This is the case anytime anything "regional" is mentioned in this area.

And I'm positive there's some transit proponent telling us what heartless people (let's not miss playing the race card either) we "naysayers" are for depriving seniors, the handicapped, (especially handicapped veterans), children, and the poor of their transportation.

Don S
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 2:04pm

And anyone is surprised?

This is the history of mass transit everywhere. Period!

The proponents ALWAYS lie about projected ridership, and ALWAYS lie about prop[osed construction costs.

Transit proponents LIE! ALWAYS!

That's a fact!

Judy Bradley
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 3:40pm

It's amazing what people write down without "thinking".

Anonymous
Sat, 05/05/2018 - 9:51am

Busses on the same route(s) would be more reliable and cost far less than spending so much money to early 1900's technology. Admittedly the buses aren't as pretty. Note how they already acknowledge failure when they know in 10 years it won't be a priority of the regional transit authority.

Ray Kuzminski
Sat, 05/12/2018 - 8:08am

Obviously the powers to be had not looked in Detroit's rear view mirror to see it's own money losing downtown overhead rail system? Or better yet to look at Atlanta's 'Taken for a Ride' downtown rail system! The Atlanta Rail Case 101 should have been the alert why NOT to build such a system. Short Atlanta tutorial ....Corporate Backing, Federal Money, Free Rides extended, (Too) Smart Pay Kiosks that no one knew how to use, new employees hired to educate riders how to use the kiosks, new police enforcement on 'free riders', poor oversight, complete revenue losing operation and now 'lets turn it over to (MARTA) the local transportation system (earlier than expected) and wash their hands!' This is what Detroit has to look forward to!

Anthony
Wed, 05/23/2018 - 9:46am

Should have just bought new buses. Much cheaper, they can drive around parked cars, doesn't require all the rails that were installed.