Crowded Detroit bus system offers alternative for some suburban riders as SMART scales back service

From the Detroit Free Press:

SMART will make the most dramatic service cuts in its history Monday as it deals with huge funding losses caused by metro Detroit’s battered real estate values.

The suburban bus system will eliminate 15 routes across the metro area, including service to Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn and Grosse Pointe schools. On some of SMART’s busiest routes — Woodward, Gratiot, Fort-Eureka, Van Dyke and Kercheval/Harter — city-bound riders outside of peak morning and evening weekday hours will be dropped off at Detroit’s borders to pick up another bus provided by the Detroit Department of Transportation.

“I understand times are hard, but this just seems to add insult to the already very injured — the disabled, the poor, those who not only rely on the buses but who choose to ride,” said rider Dwight Anderson, 43, of Warren, who is on disability. “There should have been a better way to go about this.”

Mary Jean Smith, 67, of Southfield, a retired nurse assistant who relies on buses to get to doctors appointments at the Detroit Medical Center, said, “It’s going to be devastating.”

Megan Owens, executive director of the Detroit-based transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United, said some riders who have cars but take the bus by choice will stop taking transit. An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 additional daily riders will have to board DDOT’s crowded buses to finish their trips, an increase that Detroit’s strapped bus system doesn’t have the capacity to handle amid layoffs and buses idled by a lack of resources for repairs.

“There are more people who want to ride the service than they can handle,” Owens said.

SMART announced in October that it was cutting service by 22% and laying off 123 drivers, mechanics and other employees. Revenues from the 0.59-mill property tax that provides the biggest share of SMART’s funding have plummeted amid metro Detroit’s real estate decline. The system services about 40,000 riders daily.

SMART General Manager John Hertel said the agency did all it could do in recent years to avoid serious service cuts — laying off administrative staff, raising fares, slashing pay and benefits for nonunion employees. Even concessions SMART unsuccessfully sought from its unionized work force would have only been a temporary reprieve for the service.

SMART’s 2012 operating budget is $114 million. Its revenues from the suburban millage were down about $5 million, or 12%, from the 2011 fiscal year.”We’ve never cut back on routes or services, and the only reason we’re doing it now is we’ve run out of options,” Hertel said. “I’m left with no choices, or else we run out of cash.”

These are perilous times for transit in metro Detroit.

Detroit’s bus system, insufficient in better financial times, has struggled with labor strife and a repair backlog that idled as much as half its fleet this summer. Mayor Dave Bing eliminated furlough days for unionized mechanics and restored slashed overtime pay for them to tackle the logjam over the next few months.

Hertel and Owens said SMART’s problems underscore the urgent need for metro Detroit to set up a regional transit authority to coordinate public transportation service and seek a more reliable funding source, likely a regional sales tax.