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Stalled bus plan leaves riders waiting

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A plan to merge the two bus systems into a regional authority was vetoed in 2002. But SMART and DDOT are working together more, from sharing equipment to linking their Web sites to each other, to serve commuters more efficiently.

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Dennis King, 16, left, and Chris Bohnaen, 17, both of Detroit, wait for their bus at Northland Mall's bus stops in Southfield.

Stalled bus plan leaves riders waiting

SMART, DDOT are trying to work together more despite less funding and a lawsuit challenging merging the two.

By John Wisely / The Detroit News

SOUTHFIELD -- Letia Carruthers leaves herself 90 minutes to travel the 12 miles from her Oak Park home to her job in Detroit.

A Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation bus takes her to Northland Center, where she transfers to a Detroit Department of Transportation bus to get to her job near Warren and the Southfield Freeway. Some days, the systems work fine. But she leaves extra time just in case of delays, which can last an hour or longer. On a recent work day, she sat huddled inside a plastic shelter to stay out of the wind as she waited for her connecting bus in a parking lot at Northland.

"It's gotten better," Carruthers said. "But it could be much, much better."

But funding for public transit has been pegged at $9 billion over the next 25 years, which is enough merely to maintain the current two bus-system operation. That leaves transit planners trying to find a way to get Carruthers and the 37,000 other Metro Detroiters who take a bus to work each day to their destinations more efficiently.

That fact puts an embryonic organization called the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority in the limelight.

A plan to merge the two bus systems into the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority passed the state Legislature but was vetoed in 2002 by then-Gov. John Engler. DARTA was formed without a state law establishing an agreement among the city of Detroit, SMART and the Regional Transportation Coordinating Council, a group established by a 1964 state law to parcel out transportation funding. Several unions representing Detroit Department of Transportation workers sued, arguing the regional authority can't transfer its authority to DARTA. A Wayne County Circuit judge agreed and the case is on appeal.

"No matter how much we help them individually, to get maximum efficiency, they are going to have to work more closely together," said Jennifer Evans, transportation coordinator for the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments, which developed the transportation plan.

"It's gotten a little better," said Rodney Lawrence, 23, of Detroit who uses the two systems to get to Oakland Community College in Farmington Hills. Lawrence said he'd still like to see more professional drivers and more punctual service.

So the scope of the current DARTA is limited. It is prohibited from levying taxes and it can't control funding to the two systems. That funding is still allocated under a formula adopted by the regional authority years ago.

DARTA remains a lean organization. Its board includes representatives from Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Monroe counties, Detroit, SMART and the Regional Transportation Coordinating Council.

Its only employee, senior board administrator Wendy Barrott, is a contract employee who works in an office donated by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

DARTA has secured about $1 million in grants and is seeking a CEO to draw up a comprehensive service plan for the region and lead coordination efforts, Barrott said.

"We are taking the baby steps needed to make this region a world-class region," she said.

At the DARTA board's urging, the two systems have been working harder to better coordinate.

"Before DARTA, there was virtually no contact, other than just incidental contact, between SMART and DDOT," SMART general manager Dan Dirks said. "Now the contact is almost daily."

Dirks said SMART and DDOT still operate separate radio-dispatch systems, but now they are compatible. SMART's radio system was knocked offline a few years ago when a truck struck a utility pole near the dispatch center. Now, SMART's dispatchers could use Detroit's system as backup and vice versa.

Dirks said he is working on plans to possibly sell spare parts to the Detroit system, and SMART may contract with Detroit to use Detroit's driving tester to test new SMART drivers. The two systems also share specifications on bus purchases and other items.

"We can call them up and ask, 'Have you ever done this?' " Detroit Transportation Director Norm White said. "We may have to change it a bit, but it's a starting point."

The two systems have their own Web sites, which link to each other and riders can see where the systems intersect.

You can reach John Wisely at (313) 222-2035 or [email protected]

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