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Blueprint America: Motor City Faces Transportation Crossroads

February 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Once a hub of innovation, Detroit's now stands as the symbol of an industry's struggle for progress. As much of the world looks to faster, cleaner and more modern transportation, the Blueprint America series on infrastructure examines the future of the Motor City and transportation in America.
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GWEN IFILL: And finally tonight, a look at another major American city that has had its own troubles, Detroit, and how the lessons of that city’s explosive growth more than a century ago are being applied today.

City officials are developing plans for new methods of getting people around, including using federal stimulus money to build high-speed rail lines.

“Blueprint America,” the PBS series on the nation’s infrastructure, has been reporting from Detroit.

Here’s an excerpt now from their latest documentary. The correspondent is Miles O’Brien.

MILES O’BRIEN: There was a time when American investments in infrastructure and a willingness to plan long-term powered the growth of the most dynamic industrial economy on Earth. And no place benefited more than Detroit.

ROBERT FISHMAN, University of Michigan: In the Northern Great Lakes, Minnesota, Upper Peninsula of Michigan was one of the greatest concentration of iron ore in the whole world. The Allegheny Mountains had incredible supplies of coal.

And, if you could bring the iron and the coal together, you had the potential for the greatest industrial concentration in the world. One of the things that steel made possible was the internal combustion engine and I think, really, it was just one man, Henry Ford, who turned the potential of that particular city into the reality, into the Motor City.

BILL MCGRAW, Detroit Free Press: In 1913, the auto industry was still new. It was only literally 13 years old. And people were just pouring into Detroit to get a job, a $5-a-day job. Or, if you were a smart engineer anywhere in North America, you wanted to come to Detroit and work in this new industry. And Detroit was the Silicon Valley of America.

KEITH COOLEY, chief executive officer, NextEnergy: There were a lot of technologies that were competing for the transportation business. So, you had cars that ran on diesel fuel, obviously, cars that ran on gasoline. You know, there was even a car company here called Detroit Electric Car, which was predicated on the idea that cars would run on electricity.

Folks trying to figure out, what was the right formula, what was the power plant that would win the day and allow them to make fortunes?

BILL MCGRAW: People poured into this city through this station here. Cars were pouring out. The whole city was like a big machine.

ROBERT FISHMAN: The city was organized according to these massive and very efficient railroad lines.

MILES O’BRIEN: Where rail lines ran, industry sprang up. Smaller businesses and more jobs quickly followed.

ROBERT FISHMAN: Each dock is an industrial enterprise. And you can see, the lines that they follow are actually the railroad lines. And then the various neighborhoods of workers filled in close to the line.

MILES O’BRIEN: In just 10 years, Detroit’s population doubled. Woodward Avenue was a bustling thoroughfare, with streetcars making stops every few minutes all up and down the line.

Where trolleys ran on Detroit’s main corridors, commercial districts emerged. And dozens of streetcar lines ran east and west through the neighborhoods. At Michigan Central Station, service was stepped up to pick up new waves of migrants.

BILL MCGRAW: No one knew it at the time, but, you know, the trains were pouring in here with people. And their job was essentially to build something that was going to take the place of the train.

GWEN IFILL: “Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City” airs on most PBS stations tonight.