Delays Still Plague DDOT: Duggan's First Six Months

June 24, 2014

By Pat Batcheller

"We're not going to get the buses in the fall like we'd hoped."

Dan Dirks, Detroit Department of Transportation.

"Some of the strides that they have made so far shows me that there is an initiative to straighten things out."

Fred Westbrook, Amalgamated Drivers Union Local 26.

When Mike Duggan became Detroit’s mayor in January, he asked residents to give his administration six months to prove it can make city government work. It’s been almost six months, so what’s working? What’s not? WDET is working with the Detroit Journalism Collaborative to track the administration’s progress in a series of reports. WDET’s Pat Batcheller looks at efforts to improve the city’s bus system, DDOT.

Every day, passengers get on and off DDOT buses at the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown. This is where most of the bus routes in the city begin or end. It’s also where many commuters catch their only ride, such as Lynette Green. She lives on the west side and wants to get home before her son does.

“I don’t have any other transportation to get around, so I have to take the bus.”

The problem for Green and many other DDOT riders is that the buses are usually late, and there are many reasons why. One is the buses themselves—many are old and need to be replaced. In his state of the city address, Mayor Mike Duggan said the city would be getting 50 new buses this year with the help of the White House.

“Normally, you order a new bus, it takes two years in this country to get it delivered. But they found a way for us to piggyback on another city’s order, and were gonna have these buses on the street this fall.”

But now it looks like those buses will be late, too. DDOT Director Dan Dirks says the city first has to apply for a grant, which the federal government probably won’t consider until August.

“And I suspect the funding will be available in September if not sometime before that. We’re not gonna get the buses in the fall like we’d hoped.”

While Dirks waits to find out when Detroit might get those new buses, he has to make sure the 300 he already has stay on the road. Toward that end, DDOT hired 40 new mechanics, making good on one of the mayor’s promises to improve bus service. As a result, Dirks says more buses are running during peak times today than there were six months ago.

“We started off at 148. We’re getting about 180 in the morning, and in the afternoon—and that’s of 188—and in the afternoon we’re getting 200 of 229.”

But Dirks says until all the available buses are running when they’re supposed to, the system is still not 100 percent reliable. He won’t get any argument from Megan Owens. She’s the director of Transportation Riders United, a mass transit advocacy group based downtown. Owens says DDOT needs to ensure that every bus that’s scheduled to run IS running—otherwise it leads to more problems.

“So if there’s supposed to be six buses running on Woodward at any given time, and there’s only four of them running, then they get substantially overcrowded, end up running even further behind, and end up leaving even more people waiting on the curb.”

Owens says when that happens, riders get frustrated. Few people know that better than Fred Westbrook. He’s the president of Amalgamated Transit Union local 26. Westbrook says having more drivers--and more buses--would reduce his members’ workload and the stress that goes with it.

“Number one, we’re constantly driving, there’s never enough time at the end of the line to recover, so you’re constantly running late. And passengers are frustrated and we’re frustrated.”

Westbrook says that frustration has led to violence against drivers in the past. But he says there have been fewer assaults since the city installed security cameras on 50 buses—fulfilling another of Mayor Duggan’s six-month goals. DDOT plans to have a camera on every bus by the end of September. The mayor also pledged to have 40 police officers riding buses by now. So far, only four are on duty, but DDOT director Dan Dirks says the rest are in training and should be on board in a month or so. That suits Ruth Johnson, the assistant director of Transportation Riders United.

“I have not seen them, but then again, they’re undercover. I would prefer for them to be in uniform because I know I sit up straighter when I see someone in a uniform.”

Johnson says she and her group will keep the pressure on DDOT to improve service and reduce delays. So will bus drivers’ union president Fred Westbrook.

“I’m not 100 percent satisfied with what was said would be done within six months. But I am a patient man, and some of the strides that they have made so far shows me that there is an initiative to straighten things out.”

Until things are straightened out, DDOT director Dan Dirks says he apologizes for the ongoing delays and will keep working to make the buses finally run on time.

Find more coverage of Detroit's bankruptcy and its impact on people and neighborhoods on WDET's Next Chapter Detroit blog.

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