New federal money for the Detroit Department of Transportation offers an opportunity to improve the city’s bus system.

Detroit was granted nearly $26 million by the Federal Transit Administration last Thursday — a grant that was partially matched by state funds for a total of $32.3 million. The money went toward the purchase of 50 new city buses, said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United.

“The Federal Department of Transportation provides support for purchasing new buses regularly and the secretary of transportation said that Detroit made a compelling case that they have a real need to increase their bus fleets,” Owens said. “There was about $100 million available nationally and Detroit got about $26 million, which is pretty substantial.”

She said Detroit will receive its buses in the next six to 18 months. Owens explained this implementation time is typical because the city has to work out the logistics of contracts and of manufacturing the buses before they arrive.

“Another nice thing is that the city was able to repurpose some other funds that they had to purchase another 30 buses,” Owens said. “Those are already on order and they’re hoping to have at least some of those buses running before the end of the year. Altogether, gaining another 80 buses over the next year or so should provide a big help to the city, improving its reliability.”

One third of Detroit households do not have a car and rely on buses, biking and walking, she said. Detroit’s transportation system is unreliable in part because there are not enough buses running to meet current schedule requirements. The current schedule requires about 225 buses, but there are only 180 buses in the city’s fleet.

“There are bus routes that just don’t have a bus operating and there’s no way for the passengers to know that; say, Woodward is supposed to have six buses operating on it in order to handle the 20,000 people a day who ride, but if they only have four buses that day, the buses get very overcrowded and get behind,” Owens said. “It really makes a lot of people late.”

Daniel Spyker, associate member of the Consumer Family Adversary Council of the Detroit Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency, has been riding city buses as many as six times per day for the last 32 years. He said the bus system is undependable and not accessible for those with mental health disabilities.

“I would say as far as performance, my view of the city buses is unfavorable for me and the people I work with,” Spyker said. “People can’t get to their jobs or job interviews on time and miss doctor’s appointments.”

Unlike major Midwestern cities like Chicago, Detroit does not have a sales tax on transportation, Owens said. Cuts have been made to transportation over the last decade as Detroit struggled with its finances and decides how to distribute its scarce dollars, leading to inadequate transportation services.

“The amount that the city has allocated has dropped to half over the last six or eight years,” Owens said. “They used to be spending $80 to $90 million every year to run a transit system for the city. Now that’s closer to $50 million. And so that’s one of the big challenges, that there is no money that automatically goes to the transit agency.”

Detroit’s total area is disproportionate to its population, which is now less than 700,000. Population decline has eroded Detroit’s tax base, leaving less money to devote to transportation. Detroit’s population peaked at around 1.8 million residents in the 1950 census and has been declining since.

“There is hope that in the next couple of years there will be a regional tax on the ballot to help support an improved regional transit effort that would improve regional transit between Detroit and Ann Arbor to supplement what the city is doing and provide some additional options for people to get around,” Owens said. “We now have this Regional Transit Authority that oversees DDOT, Ann Arbor Transit, SMART and the People Mover. They’re looking for ways to improve the service.”

Owens said adding 50 new buses to the fleet is a step in the right direction for Detroit’s transportation system, but there are still changes to personnel hiring and the buses’ maintenance that the city needs to make to permanently improve its transportation reliability.

“They still need to fix their maintenance so that these buses can stay in good condition,” Owens said. “Getting new buses and then not keeping up on them doesn’t help.”

When bus drivers quit or retire, it is hard for the city to find people to replace them who have experience, training and can pass drug testing, Spyker said.

“If a bus breaks down or one person doesn’t come in, the whole system shakes,” Spyker said. “Last year one of my favorite drivers on the Livernois bus told me his supervisor was literally having a stress-related mental breakdown because someone didn’t show up. When this happens people just sit around waiting for the bus to come.”

To succeed, Detroit needs reliable public transportation for the people who rely on it, Owens said.

“It’s just something that every city needs to have,” Owens said. “We need to have transportation options. Every one of us is one broken leg away from needing transit to get where we need to go, but especially in Detroit … Ultimately, Detroiters are never going to be able to get ahead if they’re unable to get around through reliable transportation.”

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