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Detroit’s Public Transit Stuck in Neutral

Under-funding and poor coordination hold back city’s renaissance

March 9, 2005 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Kimberli Bindschatel
  DDOT bus in downtown Detroit
Just the mention of public transit in Detroit evokes strong reactions. Decades of wrangling about how to improve DDOT, the city’s ailing bus system, and better coordinate it with the suburbs’ SMART bus system have made it a wedge issue between the city and its suburbs.

In January of 2003, just before then-Governor John Engler left office, he vetoed state legislation that would have established the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority, which would unite DDOT and SMART and build a true regional bus system.

Governor Jennifer M. Granholm tried to get DARTA rolling again by establishing it through an executive directive, but court challenges and sharp opposition within the state Legislature have left the agency spinning its wheels. DARTA is under-funded and months away from developing a plan to better coordinate DDOT and SMART.

For Detroiters, the immediate issue is DDOT’s longstanding reliability and efficiency problems. Those problems, combined with the lack of city-suburban coordination, seriously harm Detroit, where one-third of the residents lack access to a personal vehicle. This makes public transit the primary mode of transportation for many of the city’s working poor and unemployed. Both groups cannot hope to improve their situations while getting to where most of the jobs are remains so difficult.
  Woodward Avenue, circa 1916
For example, Detroiter Doris Haynes has discovered that, given the lack of reliable transit service between her home and her job, it can make more sense to walk 45 blocks to get to work each morning, and another 45 to get back home each night.
“My feet are a lot more reliable than the transit system,” observed Ms. Haynes. “If I leave my home at 8:00 a.m., I’ll get to work by 8:50 a.m. if I’m walking. But if I take the bus, I might get to work at 9:45a.m.. And that’s taking two buses. I just wish they would find a way to make it work.”
Ms. Haynes’ concern is shared by the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, a consortium of business, labor and government leaders. According to Dave Sanders, MAC’s vice president, “It is a revenue issue. But then add the political and racial dimensions and it’s difficult to get everybody on the same page. You have to deliver transit as something more than a social service. The service here is for people who don’t have a choice.” 

And as long as that is true, Detroit’s long-delayed economic renaissance will remain stuck in neutral.

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