Vote to shift federal transit funds from Detroit to suburbs opens old wounds

Apr 26, 2013

A rift over transit money is once again dividing Detroit from its suburban neighbors.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments voted Friday to shift money from Detroit’s bus system to a suburban line.

SEMCOG has temporary oversight of federal transit funds for capital investment while the new southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority gets up and running.

Now, SEMCOG has voted to un-do a longstanding formula that gives 65% to the Detroit bus system (DDOT), and 35% to the SMART bus system, which serves mainly suburban communities.

Under the new formula, a little more than half of that money will now go to SMART. It takes effect immediately, and Detroit transportation officials say that leaves a $7 million hole in their current budget.

SEMCOG representatives approved the change despite pleas from Detroit officials, including Mayor Dave Bing, that this will harm Detroit’s already-stressed bus system and its vulnerable riders.

“It’s not like we’ve got a revenue stream that allows us to just move money around,” Bing said, calling the timing of the move “horrendous.”

“I’m going to have to take it from somebody, and that’s going to be hurtful.”

SEMCOG officials and suburban representatives countered that SMART has greater capital needs.

They said federal officials asked them to reconsider the longstanding allocation formula—and insisted they had to act quickly, or risk losing federal funds for both bus systems.

They decided on a formula “based on the relative capital needs of the SMART and DDOT systems,” SEMCOG Executive Director Paul Tait said. “SMART has more immediate needs for bus purchases and maintenance.”

Some suburban representatives also pointed out that SMART serves a larger population. But Detroit officials countered that DDOT has vastly greater ridership, and serves as many people’s only mode of transportation.

Though the money is for capital improvements, DDOT head Ron Freeland says the loss will impact service because the federal funds can also be used for “preventative maintenance.”

Detroit State Senator Bert Johnson, who championed the Regional Transit Authority in Lansing, said this vote “leaves a bad taste in my mouth”—and that it might not bode well for future cooperation on regional transit.

“When you have people who feel like they get betrayed in these discussions, they don’t run out on limbs anymore,” Johnson said.