Detroit Residents Face Bus Service Crisis
Tue Mar 1,10:52 AM ET
DETROIT - Getting from point A to point B can be an ordeal for Wardell Montgomery. Unlike most Detroit residents, the 65-year-old can't just zip to his destination on one of the city's many freeways. Poor eyesight keeps him from driving, so he spends several hours a week waiting for buses.
"It's worse than horrible," Montgomery said of Detroit's mass transit as he waited at a downtown bus stop recently in wet, driving snow. "I've waited an hour and a half to two hours" for a bus that's supposed to run every 15 minutes.
Montgomery and other riders say public transportation in Detroit is unreliable and woefully limited for a city of more than 900,000 people. Now they fear things will go from bad to worse as the city prepares to slash service to help stem a budget crisis.
The bus system is heavily subsidized by the city. Of its $171 million budget, $80 million comes from the city's general fund. About $25 million is taken in at the fare-box. Standard fare is $1.50.
Critics say public transportation has long been treated as an afterthought in the Motor City, where history and culture revolve around the automobile. In a trend seen around the country but particularly pronounced here, the past half-century of development has focused on cars, with extensive freeways and wide avenues lined with strip malls.
"Southeast Michigan is the belly of the beast," said Steve Gutterman of Transportation Riders United, a local advocacy group. "We think of endless suburban growth as pretty much inevitable."
Besides buses, the city's only public transportation is a 3-mile light rail — the People Mover — that loops around downtown. The region has no commuter railway, and the suburban bus system, though generally considered more reliable than the city's, leaves whole areas without service.
In contrast, Denver, with a population of about 550,000, has a light rail, and an extensive network of buses with service to the suburbs and nearby Boulder, Colo.
Mass transit advocates say improvements are essential if efforts to revitalize Detroit, long plagued by poverty and population decline, are to succeed.
In the most recent endorsement, the City Council of Ferndale, on Detroit's northern border, last week approved an unusual proposal by a private company to build an elevated rail on Woodward Avenue, the main stretch that extends from downtown Detroit through its northern suburbs. The privately-funded project would generate its own hydrogen fuel using electricity from solar panels.
In the meantime, Detroit's existing transportation system is teetering under the weight of a major deficit. Bus riders learned in January that the Detroit Transportation Department was at the top of the list for proposed budget cuts needed to plug a looming $230 million budget shortfall.
Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said the city would no longer offer round-the-clock bus service and that 206 transportation jobs — mostly drivers — would be cut. In addition, eight lines would be completely eliminated, while 45 lines would have their routes or schedules scaled back.
Residents balked at the proposal, which transportation officials originally planned to launch March 5. Many packed a City Council hearing to vent their frustration.
In response, officials have postponed the changes — most likely until April — while they conduct a more detailed analysis of all the routes and the number of people affected.
Transportation department director Norman White said there will be cuts, though their exact form is no longer set in stone.
"We're talking about (cutting) service that no one really uses, because we have a 40-foot bus out there that's traveling up and down the street, and one or two people on that bus," he said.
Late-night buses, however, are a lifeline for some workers whose shifts start before dawn. "When people can't get to work, it's going to be a major problem in the city," Montgomery said.
Transportation Riders United says money could be saved by eliminating inefficiency, rather than cutting services. The group points to a 2001 audit commissioned by the city that compared the agency to nine similar transit systems around the country.
The audit found that Detroit spends 79 cents to move one passenger one mile. The average for the study group was 63 cents, while Denver had the lowest cost at 53 cents.
On the Net:
Detroit Department of Transportation: http://www.ci.detroit.mi.us/ddot/main.htm
Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority: http://www.darta.info/index.html
Transportation Riders United: http://www.detroittransit.org