On May 29, the Freedom Riders met with Detroit Department of Transportation Director Dan Dirks at DDOT headquarters on East Warren. These meetings have become a familiar, almost casual fixture of our work. Despite DDOT’s continued struggle to get buses on the road, Dirks was perhaps more optimistic than we’ve ever seen him. He told us Detroit would be getting all its scheduled buses running by this fall, for the first time in years, once his new drivers-in-training have graduated.
“This thing didn’t break overnight,” Dirks said, “so fixing it will take a little time. We now have more buses than we have drivers.” However, by July, he expects 60 more drivers to have finished training. “By September,” he says, “we should make it.”
Dirks noted that at SMART, which is an independent authority, he controlled both human resources and parts procurement, whereas at DDOT, both of those functions are centralized at the city. The head of human resources, he noted, was recently replaced by a former staffer at the Karmanos Cancer Institute.
On the bus front, too, Dirks said DDOT was making headway. “What we’re doing is changing the culture here,” he said, towards more preventative maintenance (PMs). “It was running repairs, not doing PMs.” Dirks noted that DDOT’s Shoemaker terminal on East Warren, where maintenance is headed by a former SMART employee, is performing best at the moment. At the Gilbert terminal on Rosa Parks, he said, “we’re working our way up.”
Clearly, he said, the amount of scheduled bus service was still insufficient to meet the city’s neds. “We have a number of routes, at peak [hours], that run [every] 30 minutes or more. That’s a travesty,” Dirks said. Express service on major routes, as well as restored 24-hour service, are also top priorities. However, these wait on more funding.
According to Dirks, Mayor Duggan is taking an active behind-the-scenes role on that front. One example is his new appointee to the Regional Transit Authority, longtime political insider Freman Hendrix. Hendrix replaces Bing appointee Lisa Franklin of Warriors on Wheels, a Freedom Riders ally who was a passionate advocate for bus riders but a relative newcomer to regional power politics. Dirks describes Hendrix as “someone who knows how to work political circles and find compromises.” Hendrix has known Duggan since they both worked for Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara decades ago.
Such compromises will be needed to make sure the RTA’s Regional Plan benefits Detroit as well as the suburbs, despite the fact that the city has just one vote on the RTA board – something that both Dirks and Duggan view as an injustice. (Washtenaw County, with roughly half Detroit’s population, gets two votes.) Although Mayor Duggan has declined several requests for a meeting with us, Dirks assures us that “transit is high on his list.” In fact, he’s been trying to push one of the Freedom Riders’ longtime objectives, restoring regular SMART bus service into Detroit, with the other county executives in the region, like Mark Hackel and Brooks Patterson. “He takes every opportunity he can with those folks to advocate for SMART to tun into the city,” says Dirks.
This is good news. Yet we also know that we’ll never get better transit in the region through a handful of men meeting behind closed doors. We need a broad public effort to force their hand, and we still extend an open invitation for Mayor Duggan to join it.