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Detroit transit suffers

ddot busBy Donald Barnes
Special to the Michigan Citizen

The Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) is struggling to satisfy local commuters.

Bus drivers are often the first to receive criticism from riders, but some riders fail to remember that drivers are forced to work within a failing system, and have no control over bad service.

Last April ­ —  with the threat of emergency management looming over the city and the implementation of a consent agreement with the state­ —  DDOT introduced its “415 Plan”, an initiative to improve service for riders on what the city considered its four busiest routes (Dexter, Gratiot, Grand River and Woodward). It failed.

“It didn’t work. They can’t accommodate that type of service with the buses,” Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 26 President Fred Westbrook told the Michigan Citizen. “They don’t have the (number of) buses to even operate like that.”

The plan stated that between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., riders would experience a 15 minute gap between buses.

Westbrook says for the city to maintain a 15-minute service on major lines like Gratiot, Woodward and Grand River, buses will still be crowded.  Westbrook called the attempt a “little Band-Aid.”

“You’re still going to have buses leaving people; it’s impossible to have a bus come every 15 minutes on a major line. That wasn’t a fix.” He says he would like to see the city focus on the bigger transit issues.

“We need equipment and manpower to make this system effective and efficient, so we can get people to work, to their hospital appointments and to school,” Westbrook said.

“Detroit gets 40 million dollars annually, it might not be enough but it’s enough for service not to be this bad.”

DDOT’s greatest challenges are money and leadership, says Megan Owens of Transportation Riders United (TRU).

According to Owens, executive director of TRU, the constant change in leadership within DDOT slows movement toward progress.

“They haven’t had steady leadership, (when) there’s nobody on top who’s really paying attention; a lot of the workers won’t put forth 110 percent effort,” Owens told the Michigan Citizen.

Owen says DDOT’s former CEO, Ron Freeland, who recently left, was always interim, and there’s a new management team that just started last week, but they are on a one-year contract.

“We really need to have some stable, long-term management over DDOT,” she said. “Ron was doing a good job, and he was really trying very hard; (but being) only temporary, he could only do so much.”

The new transportation management company is MV Transportation.

According to MV’s Web site, the company operates over 130 locations across North America and is “the largest American-owned, privately-held transportation firm, and holds the longest tenure of consistent ownership of any of its competitors.”

MV will work in conjunction with the recently-formed Regional Transit Authority and DDOT.

“It’s a contract that didn’t even come through city council, so they’re just bringing in who they want to bring in,” Westbrook said.

“I’ve met the director that MV hired. What I believe MV’s job will be is getting the department acquainted to a regional system where they will be compatible (downsized) enough for the RTA.”

With very little funds, the city’s possibility for improvement is limited. In April, the Southeast Michigan Councils of Governments (SEMCOG) voted to change the formula on how money for transportation was split between the city and suburbs to benefit the suburbs..

According to Paul Tait Executive Director of SEMCOG, they were directed by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to change what the FTA considered an inconsistent formula.

What used to be a 65 percent to 35 percent split is now a 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent split favoring the suburban transit system, SMART. One percent will go to the city’s downtown People Mover.

This equals a $7 million shift. According to the National Transit Database, in 2011, Detroit spent less capita than every other region using $87 million on public transit.

SEMCOG’s formula change leaves only $46 million, almost half of what was spent two years ago.

“Funding is essential; DDOT used to get from the city $80 million a year,” Owens said. “They’ve never been a great bus system; the biggest expenses are driving and fixing the buses. Transit relies on steady funding.”

Jerrold Lee, a professional musician, catches the Woodward bus to the Detroit Opera house on a regular basis. He hasn’t been satisfied with DDOT’s service for many years.

“I’ve been catching the Woodward bus for 10 years,” Lee said. “Sometimes you get lucky, but usually buses are late.”

Lee shared a story about having to wait an hour for the bus. He said he arrived around 9:30 a.m. to catch the bus in Grand Circus Park. According to Lee, his bus schedule indicated a bus was supposed to leave the transit center at that time, but a bus didn’t show up until 10:30 a.m. An hour wait for a bus doesn’t reflect the 415 plan.

DDOT busses are also often full during rush hour which wait time even longer.

“They’ve made some real efforts to improve timeliness, but a lot of that involves cutting the amount of service,” Owens said.

“Because of the city’s budget troubles, there’s even less service available. There are so many people who need to ride the Woodward (bus); it ends up getting crowded really fast.”

According to Owens, the new RTA is in charge of public transportation for Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. This new authority is in charge of coordinating transit, improving transit and developing plans for rapid transit, she said.

The RTA oversees DDOT, SMART and Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA). Currently, RTA is proposing an annual $20-40 vehicle registration fee that would raise around $100 million for improved and expanded transit.

DDOT isn’t the only bus service lacking. St. Joseph Mercy Oakland worker Wayne Little II catches SMART’s Woodward bus from Detroit to Pontiac and back.

“I find myself waiting a very long time, especially for the bus headed back to Detroit from Pontiac,” Little said.

“It’s not a long period of time before the bus should get from the bus depot in Pontiac to where I am on Woodward. Sometimes, I’ll have to wait an hour and a half for a bus to come, when another bus just came 30 minutes before.”

To see what Detroiters are forced to put up with, this reporter rode the bus.

The Jefferson 25 wasn’t late — it was 10 minutes early actually.

People getting on the bus causally walked past the driver to their seats — no one paid.

The money machine was broken and there were transfers protruding from it, letting people know it was out of order.

Owens says getting the buses fixed is one of the greatest expenses the city faces.

“Literally, the biggest expenses are employees fixing and driving the buses and the cost to gas the buses,” Owens said.

“You can’t operate without those things. There was a day last month when 20 percent of the buses scheduled didn’t even pull out of the shop; they weren’t even operating, let alone operating on time.”

TRU recently met with Gary Brown, former Detroit City Council member who was appointed by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to oversee the restructuring of the city.

“He said that the first thing the new management team is going to focus on is getting the mechanical house in order so that every bus that is on the schedule is out there,” Owens said. “Then they can focus on being on time.”

In recent news, two YouTube videos have surfaced showing violence and drug use on the buses.

In one video a man is seen smoking a crack pipe, when asked to get off the bus he refused only to be bribed off with a cigarette.

The other video shows a woman swinging her purse at a driver resulting in the driver physically assaulting the passenger.

“The citizens of Detroit are pissed, they’re mad. They’re losing their jobs … and they’re fussing at the bus drivers,” Westbrook said. “(Bus drivers) are human beings, first instinct is survival; you’re going to protect yourself. They have made the system so bad, (bus drivers) are taking physical assaults. Not management, not the mayor, not the EM. Nobody is taking this physical abuse but us. It’s not going to continue like this for much longer.”

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