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Report: Metro Detroit's bus service "in crisis," calls for regional leaders to step up

Transportation Riders United

Metro Detroit’s bus systems are in a post-pandemic “crisis,” and the region’s elected leaders need to step up and put pressure on them to do better, according to a report released this week by the group Transportation Riders United.

The report notes that Detroit area bus service was lackluster before COVID, but now transit agencies are struggling to bring service up to even pre-pandemic levels, creating genuine hardship for the people who depend on them.

The report includes personal stories from transit users who say late or no-show buses have caused them to miss class, lose pay, or struggle to keep steady work. In a survey of more than 100 regular riders on the suburban bus system, SMART, about half said they experience buses showing up late or not at all either “often” or “all the time.”

Duane Gholston, who lives in Midtown Detroit and relies on Detroit Department of Transportation (D-DOT) buses to get around, said service has gotten so unreliable that it’s a challenge to get anywhere.

“You miss a bus, or a bus just doesn’t come — a whole bus just doesn’t come, you have to wait for the next one. ... That’s almost an hour of time,” Gholston said.

Transportation Riders United Executive Director Megan Owens said the biggest root cause of the crisis is a chronic bus driver shortage. That’s a nationwide problem, but Owens said SMART and D-DOT make it worse by failing to offer drivers competitive pay.

“There’s no way that SMART and D-DOT can have a full workforce, knowing that it is a pretty demanding job, if they're not paying a truly competitive wage,” said Owens, noting that most transit agencies in comparable cities, as well as similar jobs like Amazon delivery driver, have higher starting pay.

Currently, D-DOT drivers are operating under a 2021 contract that set starting pay at $15 an hour. Starting pay for SMART drivers, who are working without a contract after their previous one expired in January, is about $19 an hour.

In a news release that seemed to respond to the report without directly mentioning it, SMART said that it “continues to face a shortage of qualified drivers that has forced us to reduce service on some routes,” acknowledging that’s had a “very real impact on the people in our community who count on SMART to get where they need to go.”

“That’s not acceptable, and we’re working to fix the problem. But, the solution is neither simple nor singular,” the statement continued, calling for “a multi-faceted, strategic approach to overcome a decades-long and complex set of challenges plaguing our regional transit system.”

The statement acknowledged that “compensation is an important first step,” and that “the pay SMART currently offers to recruit and retain talent is not competitive. We need to pay more, and those negotiations are underway. However, to fully address the driver shortage, we are also prioritizing improvements in our work environment that will enhance the quality of life for our team members.”

But Owens thinks all the big players in the regional transit system need to treat the issue with more urgency than they’re showing right now. “The agencies have said for months, really for a year or more, that this is something that they recognize needs to be addressed,” she said. “But riders are sick of waiting. Drivers are sick of waiting.”

Owens said that’s why the report calls on elected officials — Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and the executives of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties — "to personally get involved to resolve this crisis.”

“Most things have come back to normal since COVID, or at least have found a decent new normal,” Owens said. “But bus service has not.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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