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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

News Hits: Residents ask SMART to restore Woodward service

Posted By on Tue, Sep 30, 2014 at 4:38 PM

click to enlarge A group of metro Detroit residents wearing “Bring Back the Buses” stickers attended a meeting of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation’s board of directors on Sept. 25, 2014, to ask for more frequent service along Woodward Avenue. - RYAN FELTON/METRO TIMES
  • Ryan Felton/Metro Times
  • A group of metro Detroit residents wearing “Bring Back the Buses” stickers attended a meeting of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation’s board of directors on Sept. 25, 2014, to ask for more frequent service along Woodward Avenue.

For Keith Taylor, the 2011 decision of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) to cut service along Woodward Avenue into Detroit has been a detriment to the region.

“That cut really affected people on an everyday basis,” Taylor, 31, told the bus system’s board of directors last week during its monthly meeting.

Taylor, a native Detroiter, wasn’t alone: The meeting drew a number of residents who asked for the same thing — that is, more frequent service into, and out of, Detroit. In 2011, facing budget problems, SMART cut its express Woodward route to run only during peak hours: 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m.

But, residents say, things have changed since then: In August, voters agreed to tax themselves to increase funding for SMART’s operations, a decision the bus system’s General Manager John Hertel explained would allow it to purchase new buses.

If you ask Wally Gilbert, though, that’s not enough. An associate pastor at the Church of Messiah on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Gilbert says 60 percent of the church’s demographic is black males under 30.

“One of the things we specialize in is preparing them for employment,” says Gilbert, 56. Most job opportunities exist outside of Detroit, he adds — and that typically requires a string of bus rides.

In metro Detroit, as so many know, that’s damn near impossible to rely on. Stories abound of Detroiters who land jobs in the ‘burbs, but end up losing them because of our faulty public transportation. That’s Gilbert’s case with his group at the Church of Messiah, which focuses on the employment preparation program known as Aim High.

Roughly 80 percent of those who find work in the suburbs through Aim High end up losing their jobs, Gilbert estimates.

The reason, he tells News Hits, is simple: “It’s a transportation issue.”

For years, SMART has struggled to regain sound fiscal ground; over the last six years, the bus system lost nearly $50 million in revenue. As Hertel previously explained to this rag, more than 80 percent of its fleet needs replacement.

“[T]hat’s what this money’s about, because the buses are on their last legs,” Hertel told Metro Times earlier this year.

In a statement to the Hits, SMART says there are a number of priorities the system has to consider before service restoration. First, it plans to replace roughly one-third of its bus fleet in each of the next three years. Next, it aims to provide needed upgrades to SMART facilities. After that, the system would focus on “the potential impact of … union negotiations, which we don’t know when that will be concluded,” the statement says.

Only then would the potential for service restoration can be considered. Even so, SMART says it can’t focus only on Woodward. “[W]e will also have to consider our highest ridership route, Gratiot, and routes in western Wayne County, as well,” the statement says.

For Ron Herman, a Ferndale resident who frequents the Woodward bus service, that’s unfortunate. Herman, 65, eloquently sums up the reason that residents attended the meeting to make their request:

Before the service cuts, Herman explains, “the ride was halfway decent; you could get downtown in a timely fashion. This system cannot continue to exist like this if you do not want to expand it.”

He adds: “I urge you, please, restore a full schedule of transportation to Detroit.”

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