Union for Detroit bus drivers fights SMART expansion

Leonard N. Fleming, and Christine Ferretti

The head of the union for Detroit city bus drivers is challenging a proposed ordinance change that would expand service by the region’s suburban transit system, saying it would harm DDOT’s finances.

Appearing before council Tuesday, Fred Westbrook of Local 26 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents nearly 500 drivers, said the proposal would cut into Detroit’s farebox revenue and put jobs at risk.

“We are totally opposed to this,” Westbrook said, noting that the Detroit Department of Transportation has lost $7 million since 2012. “We are asking City Council to not pass this ordinance until the Regional Transit Authority comes with their master plan. If they don’t have a master plan, it’s just cherry picking on our lines.”

RTA officials have been seeking to expand service in the city on the Woodward and Gratiot routes as part of their efforts to better coordinate regional transit.

John Hertel, the general manager of SMART, the suburban bus service, said it’s his system policy to “never to get involved in Detroit politics” and that it “really is an RTA issue.”

“The only thing at SMART that we are really interested in is looking for ways in which we can cooperate with DDOT and the People Mover and the RTA to provide the best service in the region,” Hertel said. “That’s what we’re interested in.”

Dan Dirks, the director of DDOT, said the proposal to expand services in the Gratiot and Woodward corridors “hasn’t been finalized” but assured the public that “it’s not going to take any jobs away.”

“Our ridership is up a half a million from last year and demand is increasing,” Dirks said. “And we’re doing it all within the (city’s) plan of adjustment. It’s not going to hurt us. I think what’s important is to think of our customers and particularly city residents that have to get out to suburban jobs. It’s going to make that a lot easier. Less transfers and more convenient.”

The ordinance amendment is being drafted by council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr., who says his intent was to clean up the law.

“Sometimes buses on Woodward and Gratiot are full and then SMART buses pass people by,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The RTA is finalizing its master plan for regional transit, which will include a litany of options, including shuttle service to the airport, that would be funded by a referendum to be put before voters in the November election.


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Twitter: @leonardnfleming