SMART’s Hertel Hurt by Rider Requests for Restored Service

Giving testimony at the SMART Board of Directors meeting, August 28, 2014.

Giving testimony at the SMART Board of Directors meeting, August 28, 2014.

After many hours of work getting out the vote to keep SMART buses running, we’d hoped that our requests for SMART to consider bus service improvements would be considered in good faith, even if not accepted outright. Unfortunately, we were disappointed.

Yesterday, we went to the SMART Board of Directors meeting to celebrate the metro region’s overwhelming vote of confidence for transit in the August 5 election. We also asked SMART to consider using some portion of the additional $28 million they’ll be getting each year to bring back some level of bus service between Detroit and surrounding suburbs. Outside of morning and evening commute periods, this service was eliminated in December 2011, adding countless hours of waiting for those riders who didn’t give up on getting around by bus entirely.

In public comments, we stressed that the lack of transit between city and suburbs was a hardship on either side of Eight Mile.  “When I would be spending money in the rest of the region,” said Detroit bus rider Syri Simpson, “I’m not able to get out there.” Oakland County resident Tom Zerafa said he’d given up attending Tigers night games since SMART cut evening service into Detroit. “I come down to Comerica Park,” he said, “and I can’t get home.”

However, SMART General Manager John Hertel did not think the possibility of restoring service should be discussed.

SMART’s John Hertel.

After public comment, Hertel thanked MOSES and Transportation Riders United (TRU) for help getting out the vote, but expressed disappointment that a recent TRU newsletter had not thanked “the people of SMART” among the groups responsible for the election victory. Thanking the SMART board for their “courage” in allowing a millage increase, he said he was glad the board didn’t engage in posturing. “Posturing is a waste of time, and it takes you in wrong directions,” he said.

“You in the audience,” Hertel said, “ought to be pointing out [the need for transit] out to others,” including politicians and the media. He said SMART needed to replace its aging bus fleet, and renegotiate contracts with its workers, before it could consider any service changes. “If we finally buy the buses, and we get through the contract negotiations, and there’s money left over, the board and I would be thrilled to get new service out there,” he promised. Anyone who told riders that restored service would be possible with the millage increase, said Hertel, was either “not informed” or “purposely attempting to mislead you.”

Hertel is right that much of SMART’s new revenue is needed for new buses, and we agree that SMART’s hardworking drivers and other staff deserve better compensation after years of cuts. At the same time, it seems only reasonable to us that SMART’s current planning should consider what revenue can be used for bringing back at least some of the bus service we’ve lost. Even adding one bus every half hour on routes like Gratiot, Woodward, and Michigan would be a step up from the current situation. We don’t believe it’s “posturing” to talk about that possibility.

We get out the vote for SMART in the Clawson July 4 parade.

We helped get out the vote for SMART in the Clawson July 4 parade.

Keith Thomas summarized our thoughts as we left the meeting. “We shouldn’t have to beg for buses,” he said. But if we do need to speak up, we shouldn’t shy away from it. Those buses are public transportation, and the public deserves a say in where we go. We’ll be working to figure out how we might bring SMART’s leaders around to that understanding. For now, you can share your concerns with SMART at postmaster@smartbus.org or call the agency at (313) 223-2100. Edited: SMART has requested that we use the SMART customer feedback form at this link or call 866.962.5515 to speak with a customer service representative so that our comments can be more easily tabulated.


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