DETROIT – For nearly a century, Detroit has been known as the Motor City. These days, however, the engine has stalled as many of the city’s buses are idled by numerous mechanical and financial issues.
Making matters worse is that the city is paying its drivers to essentially do nothing all day while hundreds of buses await repairs. As many as 100 bus drivers for the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) are, in fact, being paid an average of $12 an hour to sit in their stations and relax, while thousands of city residents must impatiently wait hours for a ride.
“Lately, you will have to wait an hour, hour-and-a-half, or two hours just to get someplace three miles away,” said Cassandra Garvey, 29, a single mother from Detroit who uses the DDOT as one of her main modes of transportation. “I don’t feel that it’s the bus drivers being lazy, so much, as they don’t have enough buses to complete their routes.”
Detroit, which is 143 total square miles wide, has 305 total DDOT buses, with the city estimating that between 200 and 225 of them are in good enough working order to get out on the road. This has led to extremely long wait times for Detroiters who are trying to get to work, school, the grocery store, or in Cassandra’s case, taking her two children to doctor’s appointments.
“I don’t know too much about the east side bus lines, but Greenfield (which stretches across Detroit’s west side) runs the best,” said Garvey, who has recently seen 40 idled buses in a nearby repair yard. “If you wait for a Southfield bus, you might as well get a book and a meal because you’re going to be there for a while.”
Since the middle of the summer, Detroiters have had to, at times, wait up to three hours for a working bus. The busing problems have forced Mayor Dave Bing and the Detroit City Council to declare a transportation emergency.
As 100 drivers spend their days doing everything but driving because of the shortage, the bus crisis has added to the laundry list of financial problems in Detroit. Thanks to a union contract, the city has paid $2.1 million in overtime pay to bus drivers — who make about $37,000 a year with a third of that coming from OT pay — since June. “The union contract mandates that the city pay the drivers for the work they are signed up for, regardless of whether or not a coach is available,” said Dan Lijana, the administration’s spokesman. “The goal is to have the necessary number of coaches running and the appropriate number of drivers to provide the service.”
Unlike cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, and New York, Detroit does not have a true and viable mass transit system. DDOT services the city of Detroit proper, while the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) handles service to nearby Oakland County.
“We have the worst mass transit system that I’ve ever experienced,” said Garvey, who often has to take multiple buses to get to work. “I have been to Atlanta and their MARTA system is awesome. I’ve experienced Chicago’s mass transit system and it’s awesome. I’ve been to Los Angeles and New York, and the only thing you have to worry about are the passengers, not how long you have to wait because the bus comes or the train comes on time. Here, we have very sad, very sorry attempt at mass transit”
The People Mover, which opened in 1987, is a monorail that runs in a 2.9-mile circle in downtown Detroit – “It’s like a kid’s racecar track,” Garvey said — and does not go out into the city. In recent years, the People Mover has fallen into disrepair and could be closed due to budget issues.
“Our screwed up bus system includes DDOT and SMART,” she said. “Most places you go where they have smaller suburban areas that surround a larger city, they all have the same bus system and the same bus company. We have two that run like crap. If you can’t catch the DOT, there’s no way you’re catching the SMART bus. You’re better off riding a bike or leaving four hours early and walking where you’ve got to go.”
Taxi services in and around Detroit are largely unreliable. The proposed Woodward Avenue Light Rail Project – set to begin construction in 2013 — will run only along Woodward Avenue from downtown Detroit up to 8 Mile Road, which is of little solace to the thousands who are spread out around the city.
“Catching the bus lately isn’t about being on time anymore, it’s about luck,” said Kyle Skelton, a senior at Wayne State University, who uses the DDOT as his main form of transportation. “The buses always ran well up until 2007 when they started with the heavy cuts. Wait times for the slower buses were 35 to 40 minutes, which was respectable.
“After the Holbrook, Grand Belt, and all the express routes were cut it was pretty much a wrap because if the wait times are an hour apart and an alternative route is a half to a mile away people by instinct are going to over crowd the bigger routes which is leading to even longer wait times.”
For a variety of reason, ranging from cost of buying or leasing to inability to pay for repairs, city residents do not have cars. This makes the buses running at peak performance vital to survival in the city.
Often people, such as Garvey and Skelton, have to take multiple buses to get where they need to go and, in many cases, people have to hop off of one bus in Detroit and onto another one in a nearby suburb.
“In Detroit, as a single mother, it is almost a necessity to have a car,” Garvey said. “If you don’t have a car, you’re screwed. You’re stuck relying on this screwed up system. Because we have these people who think that DOT is the last thing we should sink money into, we’re stuck.”
The mayor has blamed the delays on union mechanics, and claims that they are slowing down the repairs intentionally to protest job cuts. Union leaders, on the other hand, say Bing is using the mechanics as a scapegoat and refuses to take responsibility for leaving DDOT with an insufficient number of mechanics.
“You can’t be as productive when your staff is cut like that,” said Leamon Wilson, president of the mechanics’ American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees Local 312. “We’re hoping the mayor is going to come around, because he said he’s going to do whatever it takes to get the buses repaired.”
Union officials said, the number of mechanics dropped from 210 to 148 because of layoffs and retirements. This doesn’t ease the pain of Detroiters in need of a way to work.
“I hear people talk all the time, friends of mine, who have to leave two, three, and four hours before they have to be at a doctor’s appointment or before they have to be at work,” Garvey said. “They can’t catch the bus after 7 p.m. because it’s not safe and they’re not sure if it’s going to come at all.”
The citizens are not the only people who are frustrated with the bus problem. Henry Gaffney, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, is just as frustrated.
“We want to be on our routes,” said Gaffney, whose union represents about 650 DDOT drivers. “We don’t want people waiting. But there’s nothing we can do.”
Gaffney said that drivers have been taking the lion’s share of the criticism because riders don’t know who to blame and they are the easiest target. They are also starting to fear more for their safety – which has been a chief concern on city buses for years – as backlash from the lack of transportation.
“We are getting a lot of verbal abuse,” Gaffney told the_ Detroit Free Press_. “We’ve been asking (the city) for security, but they won’t give it to us.”
Further complicating matters is the continued infighting between the mayor and the city council. The Council is blaming DDOT and Bing’s administration for the crisis and is demanding more action.
“It’s not acceptable,” Councilwoman Brenda Jones said last week. “We need to do whatever it takes to get these buses working.”
Last week, the council passed a resolution encouraging Bing to consider emergency contracts for more mechanics. Bing has said that layoffs drivers are not going to happen because the city plans is to solve the transportation crisis soon.
The problem is that it has gone on too long already. Every day that passes gets closer to the cold mornings and evenings of late fall in Detroit.
The weather conditions will add an additional dynamic to the problem starting later this week as rain is forecast for Wednesday and nighttime temperatures will drop into the mid-30s starting Wednesday night.
“It’s like licking an ice sculpture in a snowstorm,” Garvey said of the difficulties of waiting in cold weather. “No one has three hours to be waiting around when you have to be at work at 8 a.m. and your bus is supposed to come at 6:45 and it doesn’t come until 7:15.
You’ve now missed your next bus and have to wait until 7:45 and you don’t get to work until 8:15. It has really become a serious pain in the ass to deal with. It’s an inconvenient convenience.”