smart

  Today, of course, is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. And if you know your history, you know that the event that brought him to prominence was the boycott ending segregation on public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. That was the only form of mass transit available to the working poor in many places then. What’s shocking is that nearly 60 years later, metropolitan Detroit lacks any kind of reliable transportation system. Detroit has bus service, but it is not very reliable.

With the surprising outcome in the Detroit mayor’s race last week and other news, you may have missed a significant development on the transportation front.

John Hertel, the current head of SMART, the suburban bus system, was chosen as the first CEO of the new Regional Transit Authority for Southeastern Michigan, known as the RTA.

Hertel is a longtime successful political player with a reputation for getting it done. He’s been a state senator, chair of the Macomb County Commissioners, and for years successfully ran the State Fair. He is a Democrat who Republican governors have often found an acceptable partner.

If he succeeds, within a few years the entire metro area will be serviced by rapid buses which look more like railroad cars, and have their own special lanes. They’ll whiz passengers throughout Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw Counties, to and from Detroit Metro Airport, and connect with existing bus services.

Back in December, when the legislature stunned Michigan by making this a right to work state, the drama over that drowned out another hugely significant development. The lawmakers approved a Regional Transit Authority for the Detroit Metropolitan area, finally paving the way for a system of fast buses with their own special lanes and a long-overdue coordination of city and suburban bus systems.

But there’s been little publicity about the project since. Earlier this week, I talked to the two men who know most about it. Paul Hillegonds, who the governor appointed to head the new RTA, and John Hertel, now the general manager of SMART, the suburban bus system. Both told me things were on track.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Bus riders in and around Detroit will enjoy some updated buses, thanks to a federal grant.

Leaders officially announced a $30 million grant for regional transit systems Monday. It was the third-largest amount dispensed to any metro area nationally from the U.S. Transportation Department’s State of Good Repair grant fund.

Lawmakers in Lansing are working out details of legislation that would create a regional transportation authority in southeast Michigan.

Governor Snyder has called for such an authority to coordinate Metro Detroit’s bus systems, and provide funding for them and future mass transit projects.

Detroit has a city-run bus system, and a regional bus system that serves both city and suburbs. But despite mounting troubles for both, past efforts to merge them have always failed.

Megan Owens, President of the transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United, said it’s unrealistic to expect those systems to merge or go away.

“And actually it’s not necessary," Owens said. "A lot of cities have multiple transit providers. But what they have that we don’t is one agency that can actively coordinate and oversee them from a regional level.”

Owens said prior efforts to create a regional authority have always stumbled over issues of "power and money"--whether any party would have veto power, for example, and how money would be divided between municipalities. Those issues are being hammered out behind the scenes in Lansing.

A spokesman for State Senator Tom Casperson, chairman of the Senate Transportation committee, said he expects legislation will be introduced as early as this week or immediately after the winter recess.

Beginning today, tens of thousands of people who use metro Detroit’s suburban bus system will see their options dramatically limited. The cash-strapped SMART system is cutting 15 routes on weekdays, and it’s terminating some routes at Detroit’s city limits.

Megan Owens of the advocacy group Transportation Riders United says the downriver area will be hit the hardest – losing several major routes. "And then really, anyone who’s going to be traveling between Detroit and the suburbs anytime other than rush hours will really be hit very hard by having to transfer to a D-DOT bus to continue their trip."

D-DOT is the system that serves the city of Detroit, and has its own set of problems. Declining tax revenues due to drops in property values, fewer federal dollars, and the SMART system’s inability to win concessions from its unions are blamed for the cuts.

State of Michigan

Michigan will get close $46.7 million for 16 transportation projects across the state. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Dearborn today, where he announced the funding.

Governor Rick Snyder says he and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing will also head up a task force to try and break through a decades-old effort to create a regional transportation authority for southeast Michigan. Snyder says he wants to see quick action, "because we have a legacy here of planning too long and not acting enough.”

Right now, separate bus systems serve Detroit and the suburbs. Both systems face major budget troubles. DDOT, the system that serves Detroit, has cut routes, and riders have complained about hours-long waits. Meanwhile, the suburban system, SMART, just announced massive service cuts.

"I am hopeful in a short period of time we will have a solution or more than one option in terms of how we're going to deal with that problem," said Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

Part of that solution will come in the form of help from the federal government, which has pledged $6 million for the city to purchase new busses. Bing says he's also hoping for concessions from the union that represents the city's bus drivers.

Mysid / Wikipedia

Southeast Michigan’s regional bus system is getting ready to make massive cuts to its service.

Declining tax revenues due to drops in property values, fewer federal dollars, and the SMART system’s inability to win concessions from its unions are the reasons behind the cuts.

The system is looking at a 22 percent cut to its service, affecting 30 of its 53 routes.

"Certainly this is a tragedy," said SMART’s Beth Gibbons. "It’s not going to be easy for the thousands of people who depend on our service every day to get to work and to school."

Public hearings on the proposed cuts are scheduled for the first week of November. The changes could take effect as early as December 12.

About 40,000 people a day ride SMART busses.

An anti-Muslim group might be closer to getting its message on the sides of city buses in Detroit.  The American Freedom Defense Initiative bought 4 thousand dollars worth of  advertising on Detroit buses last April.  But the bus system objected to language used on the posters, which talked about ‘Leaving Islam’.