City Council to study proposed bus fare changes

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When riders want to take a city bus in Detroit, they face choosing from more than two dozen fare and tickets options. 

Currently, there are no 24-hour passes; the bus service offers monthly passes that expire on the last day of the month, and transfers can cause headaches.

But in coming months, all that could roll away.

The Detroit Department of Transportation in coordination with the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation is proposing fare changes aimed at making travel easier.

DDOT officials are scheduled to present the proposal to Detroit City Council’s Public Health and Safety committee on Monday. More public feedback is expected, and council members could vote before the end of the year.

City Councilman Scott Benson, who chairs the health and safety committee, said he's recommending some changes before the measures are finalized but he supports the overall goal of boosting transit service.

“It’s going to make transit in Detroit so much easier than it was before,” Benson said. 

DDOT gathered input about the proposed changes and conducted a federally required study to ensure policies are not discriminatory. The city also has held community meetings and public hearings on the issue.

The moves include narrowing the number of pass options to six and eventually adding a mobile fare payment app as well as additional retail sites to buy tickets.

The current base fare would be replaced with a four-hour unlimited pass costing $2, according to the city. It would eliminate the need for transfer tickets and include a reduced fare of 50 cents for qualifying riders. 

Passengers also could opt for a $5 24-hour regional pass featuring unlimited transfers between SMART and DDOT. The reduced fare is $2.

The proposal calls for 31-day DDOT and regional passes to become “rolling” ones not activated until the first time a rider uses it.

City transportation officials cite many benefits for riders: including more flexibility; faster boarding; and better transfers.

Some transit advocates also hail the upgrades as a plus.

“I’ve been at this 10 years and I still get confused about some of the transfer policies,” said Megan Owens, executive director at Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit that advocates for improved transit in greater Detroit. “Right now the system is very complicated, so simplifying it will be good.”

But others see room for improvement.

Leaders of the advocacy group Motor City Freedom Riders recently met with DDOT officials to share their thoughts — including a recommendation to have fares for low-income passengers, board co-chair Joel Batterman said.

“The bottom line is: we think a lot of these are good changes, but the increase in the base fare from $1.50 to $2 would definitely take more money out of the pockets of riders,” he said. “Although that might not seem like a lot … that does add up over the course of a year. We just think that bus riders in Detroit already face so many issues. We really think the city has an obligation not to make things tougher for riders.”

Longtime resident Syri Simpson, a senior who frequently rides city buses with her special needs son, hopes paying more will lead to addressing safety concerns, transfer points and other issues.

“I don’t see any inevitability to fare changes when we’re not getting an improved bus service for it,” she said. 

Benson is calling for DDOT to implement the changes in spring 2019, months after planned, as well as clarify qualifications for determining reduced rates as a senior, disabled or student rider.

“I want to make sure that we can extend many of the low fare rates as far as we can for those three classes,” he said.