Detroit Bus Funds Lost To Suburbs: SEMCOG Reallocates $7 Million In Funding Away From City

Passengers wait to board Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) bus in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on T
Passengers wait to board Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) bus in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Thursday, Dec 1, 2011. The reliable unreliability of public transit -- on average one-third of the 305 scheduled buses are off the road for repairs each day -- exemplifies the crisis that threatens the 18th-largest U.S. city with bankruptcy or state takeover. Photographer: Rachel Cook/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Southeast Michigan's suburban council ignored a personal plea from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing at today's Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) meeting, changing a formula for public transportation payments that will strip $7 million in capital funds from the city's already-struggling bus service.

Detroit's bus system will now receive less money than its suburban competitor, despite having more than three times as many daily riders.

The regional transportation authority (RTA), enacted after 23 unsuccessful attempts to unite the city of Detroit and suburban areas, was widely seen as the beginning of a new era of cooperation between local governments in Southeast Michigan.

But just a couple weeks after RTA stakeholders celebrated its beginning, SEMCOG alleged that the U.S. Federal Transit Administration had ordered them to change the funding equation that divided up federal transportation dollars throughout the region. Instead of waiting for the RTA to make that decision in the fall, the body voted 22-8 to change the formula on their own, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Until now, federal dollars for bus maintenance were allotted to Detroit's bus system, DDOT, and the regional bus system, SMART, on an equation that factored in bus ridership. DDOT, with just under 115,000 daily riders as of 2011 according to the American Public Transit Association, received 65 percent of that money. SMART's average weekday ridership throughout Southeast Michigan numbers about 36,000 -- they received 35 percent of the funds.

Under the new system, which bases funding on total population, SMART will now receive 51 percent of federal funding, with Detroit receiving 48 percent. That's a loss of $7 million every year.

In a letter Bing submitted to SEMCOG asking that the funding formula not be changed, he wrote, "This potential [sic] occurs at a time when the City of Detroit can ill afford further strains on its General Fund."

The loss could take dozens of buses off the road in Detroit and wipe out critical dollars needed for maintenance of the city's aging fleet. SEMCOG argues that SMART buses are also aging and in need of repair.

Bing said in a press release issued Friday morning that the change "would be devastating to Detroiters who depend on DDOT."

In the Detroit Free Press, Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson argued that SEMCOG's decision should have been left to the RTA in the fall.

"Nearly 30 percent of the city’s residents are car-less, meaning public transit is their only means of getting around. And need is one of the factors FTA says local communities can consider," he wrote. "Population isn’t a good guideline for this region, the only one in the country where two completely independent systems compete for federal dollars. (Yes, that’s part of our dysfunction.)"

State Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) told the Detroit News at the meeting that the vote was "reprehensible."

The total amount of revenue to be distributed by SEMCOG is $40 million for the 2013 fiscal year. Click here for a detailed explanation of how the formula was chosen.

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