The Obama administration is pushing for more federal assistance to help cover operating costs for Detroit's public bus system, according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. But he's also calling on Michigan's legislature to establish a regional transportation authority in Southeast Michigan that could bring greater stability to the region's motley and disconnected public transit agencies.
“The Administration has been seeking authority through the President’s proposed budgets to direct more operating funding to cities like Detroit that are struggling to deploy adequate transit service," said LaHood in a statement issued to The Huffington Post.
Operating expenses, such as fuel and labor costs, tend to be awarded less federal funding than investments in capital improvements, like new buses. The contrast has grown more stark lately due to a wave of austerity cutbacks impacting transit agencies across the country.
Detroit is one of many cities nationwide grappling with cuts to public transportation partly caused by a decrease in municipal tax bases following the recession and foreclosure crisis of 2008.
In March, Mayor Bing's administration shortened hours on more than 30 bus routes and ended overnight bus service between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.; part of an ongoing effort to stave off the financial crisis that threatens to drive the city into bankruptcy.
The reductions are part of a long-term trend for the Detroit Department of Transportation, the city's bus agency. According to Transportation Riders United, a rider advocacy group, DDOT has lost about half of its bus service since 2005.
Secretary LaHood's recent statement to The Huffington Post isn't the first time he has advocated for more help to public transit agencies struggling to cover their operating expenses.
He strongly supported temporary and targeted operating assistance for financially challenged cities and agencies in the federal 2012 budget, but Congress did not include the measure in their final legislative compromise.
And in April, the transportation secretary granted DDOT and Southeast Michigan's regional bus provider, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), greater budgetary flexibility to pay for operating expenses, allowing more than $4 million in capital funds to be redirected toward fuel costs.
A provision in a recent Senate transportation bill would have given transit agencies greater leeway to use federal funding to cover operational costs, but the measure was stripped from the final legislation approved by both houses on June 29.
In his communication, LaHood also renewed his appeal for lawmakers to create a regional transit authority for metropolitan Detroit.
"Over the long run, the best way to address many of the challenges facing the transit agencies in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs is for the Michigan legislature to implement a Regional Transportation Authority as soon as possible," he said. "If fully funded, an RTA will eventually bring the many struggling transit agencies serving greater-Detroit into one system that will be more efficient, more reliable, and be more responsive to the needs of the people throughout the region.”
While LaHood backs the launching of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in metro Detroit, he believes this can only be accomplished through the creation of an RTA. The transportation secretary's TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program provided $25 million in funds for a local BRT system in order to get the ball rolling on a regional transit authority supported by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
The lack of such a coordinating body has also been an obstacle to getting federal funding for a proposed 3.3 mile light rail streetcar line that would run along Woodward in Detroit.
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