‘DDOT in crisis’
By Donald Barnes
Special to the Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — New Detroit Department of Transportation manager Dan Dirks says DDOT is in a state of emergency. “We have a crisis here at DDOT and that is to get the proper number of buses out on the street and for us to meet the schedule we are supposed to,” says the former SMART general manager. “We need to assist our operators and give them everything they need to operate that bus as efficiently as possible.”
Before Dirks agreed to take the position as director of DDOT, he says, he needed to ride the buses to understand the system.
“I didn’t plan on taking this job when the mayor first offered it,” said Dirks, who increased SMART’s ridership by 60 percent. “But meeting with the employees and seeing their zest and their passion is what convinced me DDOT has so much potential.”
Dirks and ATU Local President Fred Westbrook had a meeting a week before Christmas to discuss Westbrook’s concerns with DDOT. Previous news reports, however, indicated Dirks’ appointment came suddenly during Mayor Mike Duggan’s first week on the job, in January, when the new mayor says he noticed long lines and overcrowded buses on one of this winter’s coldest days. “By 8 a.m., DDOT was already two hours behind schedule,” Duggan said during his speech at the swearing-in ceremony for newly-elected city officials. “I was so embarrassed and angry for the people who were standing out and trying to get to work, trying to get to the places they were going in sub-zero weather for hours at a time.”
Local commuter and Michigan State graduate Demarkus Allen says he catches more than three buses in the city. According to Allen, buses in East Lansing, which are operated under the Capital Area Transportation Authority, are much more rider-friendly.
“One thing that I always notice in the city is that it feels like the driver always has an attitude, I wish they were more welcoming,” Allen told the Michigan Citizen. He says attitude is a minor issue and on-time service is critical. Additionally, Allen contends bus fees are collected unfairly.
“The fee is $1.50 and a transfer is $1.75, but if I have two dollars instead of a machine giving me a change card, they just keep (the change),” Allen said. “It’s like they’re taking your money away every time. What if I get on the bus and all I have is five dollars, some people don’t have access to immediate change. You’ll just be stuck with what they want to happen.”
Riders are not the only ones struggling with DDOT service. “I told (Dirks) my first concern is safety for my members who drive the bus. The second thing is we need on-time service so we can dilute some of these verbal and physical assaults,” Westbrook told the Michigan Citizen. “We want our wages to be comparable to the wages of other transit workers and operators in the state of Michigan as far as SMART, Ann Arbor and other places in the state. They make well over $19 an hour, DDOT bus drivers make $15.93 and we’re larger than all the other carriers.”
According to Westbrook, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr allocated $2.5 million for the hiring of 35 transit police officers. He says the new management company and COO Gary Brown’s initiatives to improve bus security should be evident by the end of February. MV Transportation Inc, a Dallas-based company has managed DDOT since last August. Their contract is set to expire in September.
“MV and Gary Brown have some initiatives as far as cameras on the buses and 30 to 40 buses back in service from engine and transmission overhauls,” Westbrook said. “By the end of February, they should have these cameras on 90 percent of the fleet. We should start seeing improvements by the end of February. If we don’t, then we’ll be back (rallying) in the streets.”
At the end of 2013, DDOT received more than $40 million from the Federal Transit Administration with an additional $10 million being matched by local and state funds amounting to $52 million.
According to Megan Owens, executive director of the non-profit organization Transportation Riders Untied, none of the $52 million will go into operations, meaning drivers and mechanics will remain at their current pay-rate. The money will be used to refurbish more than 50 buses, improve facilities and vehicle maintenance.
Owens commends Mayor Duggan for acknowledging DDOT’s current issues and says the mayor has already made steps toward improvement by making DDOT a priority.
“(Duggan) has to provide funding, that’s going to be a major challenge given the budget problem,” Owens told the Michigan Citizen. “There can’t be anymore cuts, they can’t operate on less money.”
She says Duggan should make sure the city is an active partner in the Regional Transit Authority. “We now have this four county body that’s working on how to improve and expand transit,” Owens said. “Detroit’s got to be fully active and engaged in making that work.”