SMART urged to change boarding policy in Detroit

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — Even with four layers of clothes, Sean Murdock flinched at the brisk wind sweeping through the corner of Woodward and West Grand. The wait for a city bus was going to be long. Minutes later, a suburban SMART bus stopped, dropped off a passenger and then pulled away.

For Murdock, this is common, and transit advocates want to see it end as they push for more integrated and efficient service between city and suburban bus systems that would allow him to board and be dropped off in Detroit.

The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation is under pressure to support changing its boarding policy in the city limits to help ease the burden on Detroit residents who sometimes wait for hours, especially in bad weather.

SMART officials say they can't stop for stranded riders, citing a 50-year-old ordinance that prohibits them from picking up passengers within the city limits.

"I don't like the policy at all. (The bus) should stop, you know," said Murdock, 28, of Detroit, while he waited for a Detroit Department of Transportation bus. "It should stop for everybody who lives in Detroit. But it just goes right past."

SMART, created in 1967 as the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority, has complied with the ordinance for years — although transit advocates and passengers claim some drivers selectively pick up and drop off Detroiters in the city during off-peak hours.

The Citizens Advisory Committee commissioned by the Regional Transit Authority recently called on SMART to work with DDOT to find ways to change the ordinance and update its policy, especially since drivers have selectively picked up passengers. SMART transports riders into the city from the suburbs and then from designated locations downtown back to the suburbs.

John Hertel, the general manager of SMART, said while he understands that Detroiters want the policy changed, SMART is going to follow the law.

"I can pick people up at the edge of the city and take them to a job in the suburbs," he said. "I can pick people up in the suburbs and take them to certain places and drop them off in the city. I cannot, legally, go down Gratiot Avenue and stop at Seven Mile Road and pick up in Detroit and move them down to Six Mile Road."

Before he can consider taking on more Detroit riders, Hertel said his priorities are to restore service routes and pay cuts implemented before tri-county voters approved a millage increase in August and focus on the customers who pay for his service.

If the ordinance changed, "we could probably pick up a few people" but wouldn't be able to meet the large demand. Detroiters are not covered by the SMART millage.

"We also realize that our first responsibility is to the people who are paying our bills," Hertel said. "No one has ever said that if the ordinance changed that we wouldn't pick people up. If I have to make a choice between providing service to someone who has paid for that service and providing service for someone who hasn't, I have to provide it to the person who's paid for it first. That doesn't mean that if I've got the ability I won't also do the other."

Michael Ford, the new head of the Regional Transit Authority, is charged with prodding the various transit agencies to work more efficiently. He said that although he understands SMART's priority is its own customers, there has to be a way to make it work because many Detroit residents ride the service. He addressed the issue with Mayor Mike Duggan last month.

"It just doesn't make sense not to be able to pick up and drop off people," Ford said of SMART. "It's about the people. It's about getting them where they want to go. ... You have an inconsistent policy that some people benefit and some people don't benefit."

Dan Dirks, executive director of DDOT, said he isn't privy to what Hertel is facing at his agency but hopes a deal can be worked out to help passengers.

"They are running service during peak periods from the suburbs into the city and back to the suburbs," Dirks said. "We are supportive of any effort that SMART will do to run service in the city."

Bus riders in Detroit are often seen "screaming and waving, 'pick me up, why are you driving right by me?' " said Megan Owens, leader of Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy group. "Right now, especially on the major routes like Woodward, (the problem) is that they don't have enough capacity, that buses are overcrowded and that people are being left behind."

Owens said her group has spoken to city officials who are willing to consider changing the ordinance. She said it's not about taking business away from DDOT, "it's about filling a necessary gap."

Dirks said he's in favor of more coordination because "even if we take (DDOT) to the full budget level and we operate every service that we can, it's still not going to be enough."

Meanwhile, Murdock, who uses the DDOT bus to attend classes at Wayne County Community College, says he's been selectively picked up by a SMART driver here and there, but not nearly often enough.

"It's very difficult," Murdock said of the boarding policy. "It's real cold and you're ready to get on the bus to go home and they just pass you right up. And you've got to wait for the DDOT bus to come. And they're always late."

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SMART's Official Boarding Policy:

On inbound trips, customers may not board SMART buses within Detroit.

With outbound trips, customers may not be dropped off within the city.