Detroit, suburbs’ bus systems need jump start to grow

From the Detroit Free Press:

Metro Detroit’s public transportation troubles — long marked by inadequate, overlapping service provided by city and suburban bus systems — have never been so severe.

On Monday, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) will eliminate 15 bus routes, stop taking riders into the city except during peak weekday hours, and lay off 123 workers as the suburban bus system struggles with a budget projected to take in 12% less revenue next year from its regional property tax millage than this fiscal year.

That follows a summer of upheaval at the Detroit Department of Transportation, with as much as half of the city’s bus fleet idled at times. Mayor Dave Bing’s office blamed unionized mechanics for a work slowdown on repairs, though the unions said furloughs and cuts in staffing and overtime pay led to the huge backlog.

When it comes to public transportation, metro Detroit lags behind most other large metropolitan areas. And advocates say it’s now or never if the region is to build a public system that offers reliable service that more people would want to ride and provides a foundation for economic development.

State and regional leaders are exploring what will have to happen in order for those goals to be realized, despite funding issues with SMART and questions about Detroit’s stability as the state reviews its finances.

“Under the present circumstances, you can only maintain the current system for so long because of the shrinking property values,” SMART general manager John Hertel said last week.

Part of the federal prescription for metro Detroit is a carrot-and-stick approach, with President Barack Obama’s top transportation officials offering at least $300 million for a light-rail line on Woodward Avenue from downtown to 8 Mile Road. The aim: Reward reform with money to help modernize a system that would stabilize itself with more riders and a more reliable source of funding.

But the money to help catch metro Detroit up with other big cities will only come with serious reform.

Transit experts, advocates and government officials said several actions must occur soon to put in place at least the beginnings of new regional oversight and coordination of buses and ultimately light rail:

• The Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder must approve legislation for a regional transportation authority, with control shared by Detroit and suburban counties.

Two state senators, Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, plan to introduce legislation early next year to do just that, with input from the Snyder administration.

Snyder, in a speech in October, indicated his support for the issue, saying he wants a new, rapid-transit bus line to run on Woodward from downtown Detroit to Birmingham; along Gratiot from downtown to Mt. Clemens; and along Michigan Avenue from downtown into western Wayne County, Metro Airport and Ann Arbor.

Another line would run between Mt. Clemens and Birmingham, primarily along M-59.

The idea: Jump-start transit reform with a jolt of reliable, high-speed buses that provides a road map for change at DDOT and SMART.

• Decide on more stable funding for transit, and ask voters to approve it.

Property taxes have proven untenable for SMART, and Detroit says it can no longer afford to subsidize transit from its general fund. The solution may be a regional sales tax, said Megan Owens, executive director of the Detroit advocacy group Transportation Riders United.

The idea of a higher sales tax may seem dead on arrival in the current economy, but Owens said voters have shown strong support for transit taxes, knowing bus systems are critical for seniors, people with disabilities, low-wage workers and others unable to drive.

“Even in these hard economic times, transit millages are passing,” Owens said. “People are willing to tax themselves if they know where the money is going and what the value is.”

• Toss out old divisions that have crippled progress on regional transportation for 40 years.

Suburban leaders say they don’t want to subsidize Detroit bus service. Detroit has resisted regional management for fear of losing control of its bus service and federal funding.

There are significant issues to be worked out. Detroit, for one, is saddled with tens of millions of pension and retiree obligations from DDOT, expenses suburban leaders say they will not take on.

It’s not clear how Detroit’s legacy costs will be resolved with the potential appointment of an emergency manager or some other state intervention.

Hertel said those concerns should not stop progress on regional transit management.

“There’s got to be the creation of a basic regional transportation authority with a basic system of high-speed transit that becomes the backbone of the future,” Hertel said. “If we keep concentrating on all the things that have held us back, we’ll never go forward.”

Bing’s office said it “will continue to improve management of the DDOT bus system as a long-term agreement is worked out to better connect our region.”