Although metro Detroit bus systems have recently struggled to maintain service for riders, a $30 million federal grant will allow for infrastructure upgrades, including new buses.
U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) announced Thursday Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which covers Oakland County, have been awarded a State of Good Repair grant. The competitive funding will allow the bus systems to purchase replacement buses, renovate facilities and implement security improvements like on-board security cameras. The money will be shared with the Monroe County's Lake Erie Transit Commission (LETC).
"I'm proud to have helped secure these needed funds to improve the regional transit system in the Greater Detroit region," said U.S. Rep. Gary Peters. "We need to continue working together to build a better regional transit system that will connect all of our communities and today's news is an important step in the right direction."
U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke, who is challenging Peters for the newly drawn 14th Congressional district, shared a similar outlook on the grant.
"This is a really great a step toward having a seamless transit agency regionally," he said, "because the bus systems coordinated their requests for the repair funding."
The congressman said DDOT and SMART working together on the grant application is a sign that the city and suburbs are starting to move past "the underlying issue of race-baiting" that he said has been a barrier to a unified regional transportation network for the last half century.
Clarke believes the federal repair grant will help synchronize the two systems, paving the way for the establishment a Regional Transportation Authority.
"We can not have one bus in good repair and then a transfer to another bus in bad repair. That's not going to work for someone who's trying to get to their job," he said.
The grant is the latest in a series of federal expenditures bolstering southeast Michigan's bus systems.
Last year the Department of Transportation provided the area with $25 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants that are slated for a regional Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The money had originally been intended to help bolster a light rail line, but city, state and DOT leaders scrapped that plan this January in favor of a high-speed bus system.
In October Transportation Secretary Raymond LaHood announced that DDOT would get $6 million in grants and SMART $5 million to help update their systems as part of a nearly $47 million transportation package for the state.
Despite this influx of funding, both DDOT and SMART have struggled with budgetary constraints over the last year. Crain's Detroit Business reports that SMART terminated 99 union employees and reduced bus service by 22 percent last December after it could not negotiate concessions from unions. In March, DDOT shortened hours on over 30 routes and eliminated overnight service from 1 to 4 a.m.
Part of the reason for these cuts is that federal funding skews towards investment in infrastructure like new buses, while much less is typically given for operational costs such as paying bus drivers and mechanics. The disparity is on display in a recent transportation bill that was passed by Congress on June 29.
In a recent statement to The Huffington Post, DOT Secretary LaHood communicated the Obama administration's intention to address the issue.
“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," he said.
LaHood also reiterated his belief that a Regional Transportation Authority is needed to help establish a regional Bus Rapid Transit system in the Detroit area.