Despite pleas from both area residents and Mayor Bing, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments’ (SEMCOG) 50-member executive committee voted last Friday to shift $7 million from DDOT to SMART.
According to SEMCOG Executive Director Paul Tait, the requested action was to establish a formula for allocating Federal Transit Administration capital funds. In total, it involves just under $42 million for the fiscal year.
The allocation of those funds was based on an agreement made in the mid 1970s where 65 percent would go to DDOT and 35 percent to SMART.
“As a result of the passage of the Regional Transit Authority legislation, no formula currently exists,” Tait said, adding that based on an analysis of the relative capital needs of SMART and DDOT, the funds would be split for one year as follows: 51.5 percent to SMART, 47.5 percent to DDOT and 1 percent to the People Mover.
Tait emphasized that the $7 million that would go from DDOT to SMART would be for capital money, for bus purchases, facilities and preventive maintenance.
The Federal Transit Administration questioned the continued use of the 65/35 formula. The FTA called it “inconsistent federal law.”
Tait said DDOT has newer buses and at least a sufficient number of buses to provide core service. SMART, on the other hand, has more immediate needs for bus purchases and maintenance because of the age of its fleet.
Bing told the executive committee he didn’t think that changing the distribution of the funding from the federal government could happen at a worse time.
“Out of all of the initiatives that are important to the city and its inhabitants, transportation looms very, very high on the agenda,” Bing said, adding that on average, more than 100,000 people use public transportation every day.
The mayor also said this loss of funding will not only negatively impact DDOT, but also Detroit’s overall budget.
“We have just sent our budget up to City Council and it’s a tough budget,” Bing said. “A lot of work to be done. But now with the risk of losing $7 million of transportation funding, I’m really not sure where I can do any more cuts in our budget without having major impact on some of the services we need to provide to our citizens.”
Bing reiterated that the loss of funding would have a negative impact on so many people in need.
“I am sensitive to the fact that in the communities that you serve, there are also people in need,” he said. “But I wonder why, as we look at almost eight months into this budget period, we’re ready to make a change. My question is why now? Why is it so important to do this now?”
He also said many people have e-mailed him with grave concern about the impact this decision would have on them, and asked the executive committee to vote with sensitivity.
“I think we are now starting, as a region, to see that working together is better than doing everything separate and apart from each other,” Bing said.
During the public comment period, State Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Detroit) said shifting these funds to provide SMART with 51 percent and DDOT with 47 percent is misguided, and that pinning the blame on the FTA will not work.
Johnson also said the FTA maintains that local leaders make funding decisions based on demonstrated need.
“Simply put, DDOT has a greater demonstrable need for the federal funding than those SMART,” Johnson said.
Rev. Joan Ross, who represents a transportation coalition called the North End Woodward Community Coalition, said her group has been struggling with the issue of transportation for the past three years.
She said 35 to 40 percent of people in her community don’t have cars.
“We’re in a community of seniors, a community of students, a community of people who are barely making it day by day,” Ross said.
She asked, on behalf of that community, who she said constitute much of the 100,000 riders per day that DDOT is struggling to serve, that the funding formula be based on ridership.
Ross said justice dictates that DDOT should be a priority for public transportation, also noting that regional transit decisions should be left to the Regional Transit Authority.
Kathy Montgomery, a candidate for City Council, District 1, said she was concerned about the possibility that SEMCOG would decide to lower the amount of money DDOT receives.
She also pointed out that many Detroiters are either unemployed or on some kind of public assistance, and therefore are extremely low income.
“They do not have cars,” she said. “They must get around on public transportation.”
Montgomery said cutting the federal dollars for the DDOT system would hurt all those people.
“It’s unconscionable,” she said, adding that if the money were distributed according to the number of people who actually ride the bus, Detroit would be entitled to 81 percent.
“We’re satisfied with 65, which is what we’ve received up to this point,” she said.
Montgomery pleaded with SEMCOG members to consider the people of Detroit.
“I want to get the people in our city employed,” she said. “If they do not have transportation to get to a job in the suburbs, if there are no jobs in the city, then they will remain unemployed.”
Joel Batterman, transportation coordinator for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance which represents inner ring suburbs, said his organization is an advocate for regional cooperation and that many people are served by both transit lines.
Batterman also said diminished funding for DDOT means fewer riders can access SMART and vice versa.
“To create the kind of transit system that our region deserves, we must improve service in the suburbs and the city, on both local routes and regional corridors,” he said, adding that for too long metro Detroit has been a house divided.