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SEMCOG cuts DDOT funds

By A. Jones
Special to Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — A recent Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) decision will result in a $7 million net loss of bus funding for Detroit. The SEMCOG changes will give 51.5 percent of federal dollars for capital improvement to SMART and 48.5 to Detroit.

SEMCOG Executive Director Paul Tait says this year the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) required a change in the funding formula that hadn’t been revised since the 1970s. Tait said, under the new requirements, the formula was “inconsistent” with current FTA regulations.

Tait also believes the changes will not affect DDOT operations.

“Frankly, the good news story is that the Detroit buses are a couple years younger than the SMART system buses,” said Tait.

Yet, some criticize the SEMCOG decision-making process saying it isn’t transparent and doesn’t take ridership into account.

“From our perspective, we have communicated with SEMCOG and other transit officials to bring out two points,” says Transit Riders United Assistant Director Ruth Johnson. “This decision should be made by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in an open, transparent process. We believe that a small group at SEMCOG sort of undermines the ultimate value of the RTA in making these decisions. Secondly, the criteria for splitting the funding should look at ridership and passenger miles travelled.  We believe that would be a more appropriate formula.”

According to new rules under the RTA legislation, SEMCOG has the power to alter the funding formula for bus systems in Detroit and the suburbs. Gov. Rick Snyder gave SEMCOG the ability to temporarily manage federal dollars before the RTA is expected to take over the decision-making process in the fall of 2013.

Cuts come at a harsh time for the city of Detroit, which was recently put under emergency management because of financial distress. The cost of operating DDOT is one of the city’s financial burdens, according to the Snyder administration.

“I grew up in the city and I am very empathic to the current plight,” says Tait. “It doesn’t affect the operating money. So, in the short and immediate run there won’t be any effect on the delivery of services in the region.”

Seven million will go to capital improvements for SMART, which can include new buses, facilities like bus stops, maintenance garages and can be used for preventive maintenance. Tait also says, under the funding changes, SEMCOG could have taken as much as 80 percent more.

Some say the new formula appears to favor population over ridership.

SMART provides bus service to Livingston, Oakland, Monroe and Macomb counties but DDOT, which only operates within the city, is the state’s largest public transit agency. Detroit’s ridership is also larger than that of the SMART system. DDOT carries about 34.9 million passengers and SMART carries 11.1, according to a 2011 House Fiscal Agency report.  SMART is also able to report the population of several counties whether or not residents are actually served by the bus system.

Tait says this isn’t true. He says the new formula is “consistent with other metropolitan areas” and population was not used.

According to media reports, Mayor Bing — who supported the RTA legislation — did not expect the SEMCOG changes. Mayor Bing said Gov. Snyder and the state should not allow the cuts to go forward.

According to a SMART press statement about a millage renewal, the suburbs have also struggled with “declining revenues and decreased property values.”

Both Johnson and Tait say regional transit is “woefully” underfunded.

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