DDOT statistics obtained by our allies at Transportation Riders United show that the City of Detroit’s bus system made halting progress in 2014, but still doesn’t get nearly enough buses on the road to run scheduled service.
The statistics show daily morning and evening “pullout” – the number of buses that actually make it out of the city’s garages. They don’t indicate on-time performance.
Mayor Duggan took office in January 2014 with a pledge to get city buses running on time. DDOT pullout showed steady improvement for the first half of the year, surpassing 200 afternoon buses in May. However, it dipped significantly over the summer, to a low of scarcely 170 buses in August afternoons. (The low points on the graph are weekends, when much less service is scheduled.) Over the fall, service gradually improved, and by the close of the year, afternoon pullout was once again hitting 200 with some level of consistency.
This morning, the Freedom Riders met with DDOT staff and asked for an explanation. According to DDOT Deputy Director Paul Tolliver, the summer slump reflects DDOT’s transfer of 40 of its best buses to SMART, a deal former mayor Dave Bing cut with the suburban transit system before Duggan took office.
“Mike Duggan would never have made that deal,” DDOT Director Dan Dirks previously told us. However, the commitment had already been made, so DDOT was left without its newest, most reliable buses as the summer began. On average, SMART’s buses are actually older than DDOT’s, prompting SMART’s bid for those buses, as well as its scramble for additional funding through last August’s millage increase.
The new buses being delivered to DDOT will help compensate, Tolliver said, but wouldn’t fully resolve the problem. “Half of that is because we don’t have the buses on the street,” he said. “Half of that is because we don’t have the drivers.” DDOT continues recruitment efforts, but low pay is still an impediment. Director Dirks says the buses will be running on time by the spring.
Nonetheless, says Tolliver, “Detroit deserves twice as much service as it has,” said Tolliver. He regularly put a thousand buses on the road when he managed Seattle’s transit system. Adequate service, however, will require more funding.
As DDOT’s Angelica Jones noted, the system has no dedicated funding source, relying chiefly on a subsidy from the city’s general fun. “Over the last four years,” she said, “the general fund subsidy has decreased tremendously,” she said, and the city’s post-bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment mandates “a flat-line rate” of about $51 million per year.
The state transportation sales tax increase on the ballot in May would provide some additional funding, she said. In 2016, the Regional Transit Authority’s ballot measure could also help matters. For the time being, however, we’ll have to keep the pressure on just to secure the “minimum level of service” that’s currently scheduled. If we still don’t have that by the spring, we’ll need to ask what more the Mayor can do to make good on his promise.