2014 in Transit: Best of the Bus, Worst of the Waits

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As the year comes to a close, the Freedom Riders have a lot to be thankful for. Hundreds of thousands of people cast votes for transit, a clear signal that the public wants progress. At long last, there are signs of progress for the long-suffering Detroit bus system as well as the Regional Transit Authority. At the same time, there’s no denying the disappointments: the RTA’s decision to postpone a regional vote on transit funding to 2016, and the continuing reality of ragged bus service in Detroit and the suburbs. Here’s a quick take on the best bus news, and the worst of the waits, that we experienced this past year.

Best of the Bus

1. People chose to raise their taxes for transit, keeping buses on the road.

In May and August, hundreds of thousands of people across the region cast votes to raise their own taxes keep SMART buses on the road and expand Ann Arbor Transit Authority bus service. Those were all folks outside the city of Detroit: folks in the suburbs, where the political leadership hasn’t always favored transit. In our opinion, the SMART ballot measure was long overdue – in the 12 years since the last increase, SMART raised fares and slashed service, despite the highest ridership in its history, as the region’s economic troubles brought down property tax revenues. Nonetheless, it’s a strong signal that suburbanites want transit, too, and the region’s politicos need to act accordingly. (You may no

2. Two years in, the Regional Transit Authority has a leader at last.

After its creation by the State Legislature in December 2012, the Regional Transit Authority got off to a slow start. The RTA board’s initial pick for CEO, longtime politician and SMART director John Hertel, waited on signing his contract until Lansing put up more money for transit. It didn’t, and Hertel withdrew his name for consideration as 2014 began. At long last, the RTA has a helmsman in the person of Michael Ford, an experienced transit director who previously headed up the Ann Arbor transit system. The RTA has a long way to go, but with a director, staff, and website, we can finally trust it’s for real, and Ford’s experience engaging the public in Washtenaw County gives us confidence he can do the same in the region at large.

3. Detroit Mayor Duggan says transit’s at the top of his list.

The City of Detroit has a lot of issues to deal with, but we think better bus service needs to be a priority, and at last we have a mayor who says he agrees. On taking office this year, Mayor Mike Duggan took immediate action to bring in his old SMART colleague, Dan Dirks, as head of the Detroit Department of Transportation, signaling he took a real interest in transit – something that couldn’t be said so easily of Duggan’s predecessor, Dave Bing. Duggan has repeatedly promised to get the buses running on time. Now riders need to hold him accountable. We’ve met repeatedly with Dirks, and we’re seeking to get bus service featured on Duggan’s Detroit Dashboard.

The Worst of the Waits

1. The RTA delayed a vote on regional transit funding to 2016.

Metro Detroit needs better public transit, and we need it yesterday. The best way to do this? Put more money into the system. We get what we pay for, and the region invests only one-third the national average in public transit. The Regional Transit Authority board had the chance to put a funding proposal before voters this year, but early on this year, after SMART CEO Hertel declined to head up the RTA, it delayed a vote until 2016, as the Freedom Riders marched with signs reading “WE CAN’T WAIT.” Disappointing, but it makes it all the more important that we organize with urgency in the interim.

2. DDOT riders are still out in the cold.

Despite the efforts of Mayor Duggan and Director Dan Dirks, one in ten scheduled DDOT buses still doesn’t show up, according to the city’s statistics as of November 2014. That means every day, hundreds of Detroiters who rely on the buses are late to work and school. Dirks told us that even if all the scheduled buses were running, that still wouldn’t be enough. We know change can’t be instantaneous, but we need to ratchet up the pressure to make it happen.

3. No public timeline or process exists for SMART service restoration.

As the year began, we advocated for SMART to seek a higher millage rate in order to get more buses on the road, reversing the 2011 cuts that ended all-day bus service into Detroit. Instead, SMART kept its increase conservative, going for a 1 mill rate, above the previous 0.59 mills. (That’s $50/year on a $100,000 home.) Nonetheless, we think the public deserves to see some real SMART service improvements, especially on the major corridors – like Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan – that the RTA has singled out for regional transit. Unfortunately, SMART CEO John Hertel scolded the Freedom Riders for suggesting that, so we’ll need to keep pushing.

Clearly, we’ve got a lot of work to do in 2015. Yet we can draw strength from the victories we’ve shared this year, and perhaps the best gift all has been the growth of a bigger community of transit riders and allies raising our voices for the right to move.

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