D-Day Approaches for Detroit Transit Riders

As the recession squeezes the pocketbooks of the nation's cities, Detroit has become an unfortunate symbol of urban decline -- so much so that Time Warner recently bought a house there for reporters to use while covering the locals' struggle for financial survival.

bilde.jpgDetroit buses like this one carried an estimated 38 million riders last year. (Photo: DetNews.com)
The latest troubling news out of the auto industry's city of dashed dreams: Cutbacks in bus service are slated for release on Thursday to help close a $300 million budget gap, putting transit-dependent residents on edge.

Widespread protests helped kill an initial proposal that would have ended weekend at 6 p.m. on Saturdays and forced layoffs of 113 transit workers, but this week's cuts are still guaranteed to sting for the 24,000-plus Detroit workers who do not own cars:

The bus proposal, listed on the city transportation Web site, calls for service to stop before midnight and wait times to increase on at least a dozen routes. Some routes may lose 24-hour service. ...

Robin Boyle, professor of urban planning at Wayne State University, said he understands Bing's dilemma, but sees bus transportation for Detroiters as absolutely vital.

"Obviously the mayor is in a very difficult situation; he has to find ways to restructure his budget while maintaining the core services," Boyle said.

"Many argue that the core services are mainly police, fire and trash collection, but ... for a significant portion of the population, access to bus service is a fundamental service and is the only convenient and affordable way to move across the city."

Transit cuts are an especially unwelcome sight in Detroit, which has a poverty rate higher than any other large U.S. city, but transportation funding problems are proliferating across the state of Michigan.

Road and bridge repairs totaling $740 million had to be canceled in June when the state couldn't muster funds to match the federal contribution. The bus network that services Detroit's suburbs is also facing budget troubles, even as it wins millions of dollars from Washington that are reserved for new buses.

One solution, outlined by the Michigan Transportation Funding Task Force and hailed by the Detroit Free Press editorial board, would replace the state's flat gas tax with a proportional one and enhance regional cooperation among transportation planners.

That focus on greater regional empowerment was echoed last week by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; still, it looks like reform may not come soon enough for Detroit bus riders.