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Bus crisis in the Motor City leaves riders stranded

A DDOT bus in Detroit.
Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio

James Hill lives in Detroit and uses the bus every day. And he says he’s learned to dedicate hours to getting from point A to point B.

People who need to catch the bus to work or school in Detroit are in a jam. On any given day, about half the city’s buses are parked, waiting for repairs. That, in turn, means hours-long waits at bus stops.

Hill said he took the bus to visit his son in the hospital a couple of weeks ago. He left the hospital at 4 o’clock in the afternoon…

“I got home at 9:30," Hill said. "If you got a job and got to catch a bus to your work, you gonna lose it cause you’re not going to get there on time, ‘cause the way the buses running.”

It’s an especially serious problem in the Motor City, where about one in four people doesn’t have a car. Bus riders say they’ve lost jobs, missed important doctor’s appointments, and had to drop classes after getting stranded.

“I have been written up several times, on the verge of being fired," said LaTonya Peterson, who relies on the bus to get her to job as an office assistant.

She said even when she gets to the bus stop an hour or two early, she’s still late for work.

Some riders said the most frustrating thing is when you’ve been waiting for an hour or two – there it is, the bus is coming - but  it doesn’t stop.

“They be so crowded they pass you up," said Curtis Jackson. "And then it can be raining outside, it’s ridiculous."

"And now it’s getting ready to be winter, and a person got to go through this?" asked Bonnie Mixon. "No.”

So many of the city’s buses are waiting on repairs, in part because retirements have thinned the ranks of mechanics who service them. But officials with the mayor’s office are also accusing the union that represents the 152 mechanics of a deliberate work slowdown to protest cuts to the department’s overtime budget.

The president of the mechanics’ union did not respond to requests for an interview, although he has denied there’s any intentional work slowdown.

But City Council President Charles Pugh thinks that’s exactly what’s going on.

“People supplementing their salaries by five, seven, eight, 10, 12, 15 thousand dollars a year on just regular overtime that you’ve been getting every year for however long – we can’t do that anymore!" said Pugh. "We’re broke! We’re more than broke, we’re in a deficit that’s growing upwards of $200 million!”

Pugh – who has his sights on the mayor’s office – is also critical of how Mayor Dave Bing has handled the situation. Pugh said complaints have flooded city council members’ phone lines since late August.

“It’s almost November and there’s still no action," he said.

But Mayor Bing said he is taking action - initiating a series of meetings with the bus system’s management and union leaders to get buses back on the road.

“I don’t want to point fingers and lay blame, it’s about taking care of our citizens. People are losing their jobs, the businesses are – they don’t have the employees they need right now to get jobs done," Bing said.

The mayor and city council appear to be giving mechanics something of an ultimatum: Get the buses repaired and back on the road by mid-November, or they’ll bring in private contractors to do the work.

Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of Detroiters who rely on the bus have little choice but to keep waiting.

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Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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