For over a year, since the SMART tax millage increase passed last August, the Freedom Riders have urged the transit agency to consider restoring seamless all-day service between Detroit and the suburbs – to little avail. SMART General Manager John Hertel said that wasn’t worth discussing, and dismissed our petitions as “posturing.”
Today, in a special meeting, the SMART board debated a proposal very similar to the one we put forward: restoring all-day and weekend service across Eight Mile on its two most-traveled routes, Woodward (450/60) and Gratiot (560).
The about-face was prompted by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which now controls the division of federal funding between DDOT and SMART. That allocation has been a subject of fierce debate. The power to control that funding split is one of the RTA’s , and it appears RTA staff are now using the power of the purse to push SMART to restore regional service – sparking a spirited debate among the SMART board members.
For years, under an agreement negotiated under Mayor Coleman Young, 65% of federal transit money for the region went to DDOT and 35% went to SMART. “We fought that for years,” noted SMART board member Jerry Poisson, deputy for Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson. In 2013, they won, as the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) shifted the 65/35 formula to a 48/51 formula – with SMART getting the lion’s share of cash. (The remaining 1% went to the People Mover.)
That $7 million shift left Detroiters crying foul. Although SMART serves a larger area, and its member communities boast a larger population, suburban communities do not provide local funding transit at nearly the same rate as Detroit, and DDOT carries more than three times as many riders as SMART.
Enter the Regional Transit Authority, under director Michael Ford. As the deadline for dividing the federal funds approached, the RTA issued a proposal to SMART. The RTA would maintain the current 48/51 split…provided that SMART restore seamless service into Detroit on Woodward and Gratiot.
It’s no secret that restoring that service has been a top priority for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and his DDOT director Dan Dirks, himself a former head of SMART. They see it as a critical step towards improved regional transit, and of course, it would also relieve overcrowding on DDOT’s Woodward and Gratiot routes. The mayor, Dirks told us, “takes every opportunity he has with those folks [Oakland County Executive Patterson and Macomb County Executive Hackel] to advocate for SMART to run into the city.”
The RTA calculated the cost of restoring Woodward and Gratiot service to roughly its previous extent – with buses every 15 minutes on weekdays, and every 30 on weekends – at $4.5 million annually. SMART staff, however, countered with a higher estimate: $5.6 million. And, numbers aside, some SMART board members had doubts about the prospect of extending service back into the city, while SMART’s finances remain stretched to the limit.
“Unfortunately, for us, it’s a zero-sum game,” said Oakland County’s Jerry Poisson. “If there are foundations out there that want to help the city, why don’t they? What are my communities going to think if I take money out of their service?”
Poisson acknowledged it “would be nice” if the seamless service worked, and the Macomb County board members argued the proposal should not be rejected out of hand. “We need to take our time with this,” Melissa Roy argued, “and ask the RTA to work more closely with our operation. We can’t simply fire a solution out of the gun.”
For his part, SMART general manager John Hertel left no doubt of his displeasure with the RTA’s effort to bargain for extended regional service. “It’s disturbing to me that most of the members of this board were not given the information about this so-called solution from the RTA,” he said, as RTA staffers listened from the audience. “It’s discourteous. It’s not appropriate.”
“Everybody’s yelling out there, saying ‘give us this’ and ‘give us that,'” Hertel continued. “We’ve done our part a thousand percent here. It’s time somebody else did their part.” The RTA, he said, ought to be focusing on passing a ballot proposal, not interfering with SMART, and if it didn’t, it might cease to exist. “The next millage that comes along here might come along without an RTA,” he said, “and that frightens me.” As Hertel noted, he was a chief architect of the RTA legislation, and the initial pick to lead the organization, though he never signed a contract and ultimately gave up the post six months after receiving the offer.
The Freedom Riders and Transportation Riders United delivered public comment to the SMART board, urging the agency to consider restoring service across Eight Mile. A recent addition to the SMART board, former Michigan state representative Rudy Hobbs of Oakland County, also spoke up, urging the board to entertain the RTA proposal.
“We need to start a conversation about what does regional coordination really look like in this region,” Hobbs said. “I would like to encourage my colleagues to begin with the end in mind. If we stay stuck in the weeds in this region, fighting over a split – people lose.”
“Excuse my language, but let’s figure this damn thing out. Goodness gracious.”
The meeting didn’t reach a clear conclusion; the SMART board voted unanimously to continue discussion with the RTA on the proposal. The Freedom Riders, of course, think it’s past time to get this figured out. Restoring regional service makes sense for the suburbs, the city, and the entire region. If you agree, we hope you’ll join us in saying so at the next SMART board meeting: Thursday, October 22, 2 pm, at SMART offices in the Buhl Building, 535 Griswold, downtown Detroit.
Until SMART service is restored, though, if you want to catch a SMART bus direct to the meeting, you’ll need to leave before 9 am to get there.