SMART, DDOT eye expanded lines between Detroit, suburbs

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

A joint venture between SMART and DDOT to offer expanded bus service up the Woodward and Gratiot corridors was presented to regional transit officials Thursday, a major first step toward improving coordination and connecting Detroit and the suburbs.

Expanded transit service up the Woodward and Gratiot corridors was presented to regional transit officials Thursday.

The pilot program, initially called refleX and taken from the words “regional, flexible and express,” would cost an estimated $3.9 million annually to operate. At least $2.8 million of that cost has been awarded in a three-year state grant and the rest would be covered by money earned at the fare box, officials said.

Both routes would originate in Bricktown at Fort and Brush and extend out to Oakland and Macomb counties. The Oakland-Detroit route, run by DDOT, would go to the Somerset Mall area and the Macomb-Detroit route, overseen by SMART, would take riders to the North River park and ride in Mount Clemens.

Officials for Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation and the Detroit Department of Transportation hope to kick off the project by July 1, but Regional Transit Authority officials would have to sign off, and there’s no indication when it might be approved.

“We were given a task and our limitation is the amount of dollars, but the task is a very new and unique one,” said John Hertel, general manager of SMART. “We’re happy with the product. What the most significant thing is we’ve delivered a product which is what is what was asked for, which is truly a cooperative venture about increasing service and doing it by joining our resources.”

Dan Dirks, who oversees DDOT, said the unprecedented cooperation between the two agencies is all about customers having better, faster options.

refleX bus

“We both have customers that we share and in many cases it’s very difficult for them to get from their homes to where they work or school or wherever,” he said. “When our folks sat down, it wasn’t about SMART, it wasn’t about DDOT. It was what can we do to make those trips for folks that live in the city and go out to the suburbs and suburbs to the city as easy as possible.”

While lauding the effort, RTA officials expressed caution because it received the proposal on Tuesday after three months of negotiations between the two bus providers.

“This is the next step,” said Paul Hillegonds, RTA’s board president. “Rather than just talking about principles, we now have a draft proposal. And I emphasize draft. More work will have to be done between SMART, DDOT and RTA to refine the proposal. But I think it’s a great starting point.”

Michael Ford, CEO for the RTA, said the authority is excited to see the “first steps” to giving the public better transit service.

“It's a great beginning to a spirit of collaboration that is setting the stage for a number of important initiatives in regional transit such as a coordinated master plan and a universal fare card,” Ford said. “The RTA is so proud to start the ball rolling."

Two buses each from both DDOT and SMART would operate on their given routes with a vehicles awash in a new logo and design, if approved by RTA officials. The buses would run every 65 minutes on the Gratiot route and 65-75 minutes on the Woodward line but could be faster if additional resources are allocated, officials said.

Hertel and Dirks said these two lines, the biggest transit routes for both their respective agencies, would arguably be faster than the RTA’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit lines up Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenue because they have fewer stops. The BRT routes, which will be decided by voters this fall, have 25-plus stops; the refleX routes would have 13, officials said.

Fares for the new routes have not been determined and both SMART and DDOT officials say that no existing routes would be cut or reduced.

“This is the promise of the RTA beginning to be realized,” said Ruth Johnson, the assistant director of Transportation Riders United, a longtime advocate of bringing and expanding transit options in Metro Detroit. “I think it’s just a start, but it’s a grand start. But we’ve got to get it right.”

(313) 222-2620

Twitter: @leonardnfleming