Detroit's beleaguered bus riders already have little love for the Motor City's transit system. Now service is about to get worse.
Beginning Saturday, some Detroit bus routes will stop running as early as 8 p.m. and service will be halted between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. The changes will leave about 3,200 of the 110,000 to 120,000 people who ride Detroit’s buses every day without nighttime transportation and likely cost some their jobs, say public transit advocates. Meanwhile, the private companies who run Detroit's transit system are in line for large bonuses if cost-cutting measures succeed.
Facing an ever-tightening budget noose, Detroit officials are trying to stave off a fiscal takeover by the state. When the bus service cuts go into effect on Saturday, the city's transit system will save $11 million and help Detroit move toward more reliable service during peak hours when buses are most in demand, said Chris Brown, Detroit's chief operating officer, who oversees transit operations.
Officials insist that the changes will affect the smallest number of riders possible. These riders might be the transit system's neediest users, though.
"People on the bus at 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. are not on there because they thought, 'Oh, I think I’ll park my car today and just ride,'" said Henry Gaffney, president for the Detroit bus drivers union. "They are on there because, in a lot of cases, they don't have any other way to get to and from work."
In January, city officials hired a private company, Parsons Brinckerhoff Michigan and its subcontractor Envisurage to oversee bus operations. Parsons and Envisurage will be paid a minimum of $2 million over the 11-month contract, according to a work order obtained by The Huffington Post. They can also earn bonuses if they hit various benchmarks. Money will be awarded, for example, if customer service improves, monthly operating costs fall, bus availability rises in peak times or the bus breakdown rate declines.
The companies stand to earn the biggest bonus -- as much as $150,000 a month -- if Envisurage can operate 20 percent under budget. Bonuses for on-time bus service, however, are far smaller, only as much as $20,000 a month. All told, the company could earn as much as $3 million in bonus awards.
"Besides making me feel like I may be in the wrong business," Gaffney said, "that deal wasn’t designed with people, poor people in mind."
When Detroit officials approved a budget for the fiscal year ending in June, it called for the city to contribute nearly $80 million, or 40 percent, of the transit system’s $220 million operating budget. The state used to fund nearly all the rest, using proceeds from gas taxes. In recent years, however, the state has funded only about 30 percent of Detroit's costs, said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, an advocacy group. Rider fees cover just about 20 percent of the system’s expenses, transit officials said. The end result: a growing reliance on subsidies from Detroit’s general fund.
No permanent fix –- a dedicated funding source for city buses or a transit alternative -- is in sight, Owens said.
Detroit is facing serious financial challenges, Brown told The Huffington Post. "It is also a city that contributes more than most other large metropolitan areas to the cost of the transit system," he said. The service cuts are designed to save money, but minimize inconvenience, Brown added. Use of outside management hopefully will reduce the bus system's dependency is on the city's finance, he said.
While the details of Detroit's public bus transportation crisis are unique, the city is not alone. Last year nearly 85 percent of the nation's public transit systems faced such severe deficits that they eliminated or curtailed routes, laid off staff or raised fares, according to an August survey by the American Public Transportation Association.
And Detroit's public bus service is already widely considered horrendous. In 2009, the city cut several routes and 113 drivers, according to Gaffney. At least half of Detroit’s buses do not arrive on time. Another 20 percent to 30 percent just don’t show up or, when they do, are too full to stop, according to an analysis of city bus service released late last year by a Detroit transit advocacy group. And a city study released this month found only slightly better performance results, The Huffington Post reported.
Bus service in Detroit is so poor that the city has an inordinate number of what people call hoopties, older gas-guzzling cars kept in just barely working order, Owens said. A Detroit entrepreneur plans to start in April a private bus service that will swing though gentrifying portions of the city, The Huffington Post reported last month. It will charge riders three times what it costs to ride a city bus.
City bus service is crucial to many residents' survival. In 2010, the most recent year for which detailed U.S. Census data is available, 10 percent of the workforce in Detroit did not have access to a car. About one-third of all Detroit households are in the same position, Owens said.
Public outcry about the bus service cuts has been intense, Gaffney said. The city is required by law to advise the public about service changes. The city held four meetings, virtually back to back, on the last day possible to satisfy notice requirements, according to Gaffney. One drew a crowd of about 100 people and a sole transit system official, Gaffney added; he took no questions. Instead, members of the public were directed to four tables where stenographers were stationed to simply record public complaints. Some riders grew so frustrated they shouted. Others cried, the Detroit Free Press reported.
"In Detroit, lots of employers already know how bad the bus is so they just ask up front if applicants have their own transportation," Owens said. "If you say that you ride the bus, it's not uncommon for employers to say, 'Don't bother applying.'"
Still, Saturday's service cuts are on the way, city officials say.
"The road could be bumpy as we implement some of these changes, but we're committed to making it happen," Brown said, the Detroit News reported this month. "We're doing this to improve our efficiency and keep fare rates the same."
It is still unclear what Detroit's cutbacks will mean for bus drivers and the system’s unionized mechanics. In an operations plan that Parsons Brinkerhoff and Envisurage submitted to city officials that was obtained by The Huffington Post, the two companies indicated that staff cuts were coming.
"We undoubtedly have too many employees and we certainly have too many employees that lack a vested commitment to excellence," the companies' operations plan stated. "All employees will be given the opportunity in very short order to demonstrate their personal commitment to organizational success. Absent that, staff changes will be necessary both finically and culturally."
Layoffs of 78 bus drivers, announced in mid-February and scheduled to take place Feb. 24, were rescinded. City officials say they want to give the private companies a chance to evaluate the system's needs.