PHOTO CREDIT: Alisha Dixon

PHOTO CREDIT: Alisha Dixon

Transit union says RTA proposal bad for Detroit neighborhoods, good for suburbs

The ongoing dispute between supporters of the Regional Transit Authority ballot proposal and those who believe it is a bad deal in its current form, comes down to two primary issues: the continuing need for better transportation service in many of the city’s neighborhoods, and money. Money, as in:

  • Issues of wage parity between DDOT (Detroit) drivers and SMART (suburban) drivers (SMART drivers currently make $10,000 more per year according to Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 President Fred Westbrook)
  • A reallocation of federal funding (an unfair allocation according to ATU) that they say provides more transit funding for wealthier, whiter suburbs by siphoning $8.2 million in federal funding away from considerably blacker, and poorer, Detroit. Wealthier, whiter suburbs still do not maintain the same level of ridership as Detroit.

In a recent Saturday meeting conducted by the Detroit Residential Long Term Planning Group, an arm of the ATU, Westbrook and others in attendance said they wanted to make it plain that they are not in any way opposed to addressing the need for a significantly improved regional transportation system. They are well aware that Detroit is lagging far behind all other large urban areas when it comes to the quality of public transportation the city offers its residents, and that a modernized transit system is an absolute must. Furthermore, they believe there is still time to adjust the current RTA proposal in such a way as to more fairly address their overriding criticism that the current RTA proposal is set up to benefit the transportation needs of the suburbs more than the city of Detroit. The disproportionate harm that this perceived inequity causes Detroit is the reason ATU Local 26 has filed a formal complaint against the Regional Transit Authority, accusing them of both racism and discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“When you talk about income, 40 percent of Detroit’s residents live below the poverty level. Compared to nine and twelve in the suburbs out there. So how do you take money from a cash-strapped city — we just came out of bankruptcy — and then you ship it to the affluent white system out there. And yet again they feel justified,” said Paul Bowen, International Vice President of ATU.

“This is wrong by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a matter of pride.”

“We carry 106,000 people a day to their 35,000. So definitely it is a civil rights complaint that they would take $8.2 million from a low-income minority community and give it to a more affluent community,” added Fred Westbrooke, who serves as President of ATU Local 26,

In an article published by the Michigan Chronicle in August, Tiffany Gunter, who is the Title VI Officer, Deputy CEO and COO for the RTA responded to the charges leveled by the ATU. According to Gunter, the reallocation of federal funds is now closer to a 50-50 split (52 percent SMART, 48 percent DDOT) resulting from action taken by Southeast Michigan Council of Governments in April, 2013. The former 65-35 split favoring DDOT is what existed under the Regional Transit Coordinating Council, which no longer exists. Gunter also pointed out that Detroit customers rely heavily on both DDOT and SMART.

“The most recent SMART On Board Passenger Survey conducted in 2008 illustrates that Detroit residents rely on both transit systems. … The onboard survey is conducted every ten years. A few key findings from this survey were:

  • 38 percent of all SMART Ridership comes from Detroit residents, which is an opt-out community.
    • SMART Riders in Opt-Out Communities come from:
      • Wayne County, including Detroit 88.4 percent
      • Wayne County, not Detroit 2.9 percent
      • Oakland County, 3.4 percent
      • Macomb County, 0 percent
      • Other Counties, 5.4 percent

Bowen, who attended the Saturday meeting, wasn’t quite buying the argument that because Detroiters and suburbanites use SMART equally, that the reallocation of funding is therefore justified. Nor is he buying the argument that seems to imply that the needs of Detroiters trying to reach the suburbs supersede the needs of those who need to get from Point A to Point B in the city.

“What they did to Detroit was unforgivable. You gonna ask me to be a partner in a regional plan, but we’re gonna start the plan by penalizing me by taking $8 million away from us and shifting it to the suburbs,” Bowen said.

“You take this money and you concentrate it on routes that we really don’t need; the Gratiot and the Woodward buses.” The Gratiot route already had only a 12-minute wait between buses and Woodward had a 10-minute wait, “so why would you need to concentrate that kind of service over there, other than to concentrate on getting folks to the suburbs and back? They act as if that’s all where Detroit wants to go is to the suburbs. We have a small portion of riders that go to the suburbs. But everybody else in the city is trapped. You can’t get from your house to the other side over there without some kind of irrational amount of time to get there.”

Westbrooke added specifics.

“We’re saying if Detroit is gonna put any money in [to RTA] then y’all need to concentrate on the inner city routes. We have just eight routes that probably cross the border. The rest of our 50-something routes just cross Detroit. And on 30 of those routes, people wait an hour for a bus. It’s unconscionable for anybody in a major city like Detroit to wait an hour for a bus. Somebody has to decrease those times in the inner city of Detroit before we start campaigning for a regional system and a millage to support this RTA.”

Westbrook said the ATU blames Mayor Mike Duggan, at least in part, for not addressing the inner city routes sooner.

“You [Duggan] have had three service improvements over the last two years. None of them have addressed the hour wait on the lines in the inner city. All of them have addressed lines that go to the suburbs,” he said. “The majority of Detroiters work here in Detroit, and they have to get to work too. They have to get to school too. They have to get to their doctors appointments too. Help those folks who need to get crosstown, not out of town.”

Duggan has consistently claimed that wait times for buses throughout Detroit have been reduced dramatically during his tenure.

Ken Harris, president of the Detroit Black Chamber of Commerce, is strongly supportive of the RTA ballot proposal, as is Truscott Rossman’s Shaun Wilson, who recently helped to convene a panel of RTA ballot supporters to discuss the reasons for their support. Truscott Rossman is leading the campaign in support of the RTA ballot proposal. But even Harris and Wilson acknowledge that providing reliable, efficient transportation to Detroit’s isolated neighborhoods is key. The difference is that both Harris and Wilson strongly believe that the current RTA proposal will provide that much-needed neighborhood upgrade, whereas Westbrooke’s ATU, as well as those who signed the Title VI complaint, are saying that the current proposal leaves neighborhoods out. Supporters of the RTA proposal also say that 92 percent of current available job opportunities exist outside the City of Detroit, making improved regional transit an imperative. Opponents say most Detroiters work in Detroit, and still can’t get to work on time, so why should suburban jobs be prioritized?

The following exchange between Harris and Wilson is enlightening:

HARRIS: “Segregation is not something that was created overnight. It’s a system. We have to attack the system in order for the region to be competitive. And I think that’s the ultimate goal of the entire mass transit conversation; are we competitive? Are we losing population or are we gaining population? Is this an attractive place for a young family to purchase a home and a diverse environment? And we all know, statistically, diverse environments, inclusive environments … are the most successful economies. And so we need to get ourselves in a position with this ‘yes’ vote to a real discussion, not just of regional transportation, but even transportation within the city of Detroit that connects all of the districts. This is not happenstance that communities have been marginalized. Communities of color have been marginalized. And a reason that 80 to 90 percent of the jobs are outside of the City of Detroit, which is a super majority/minority community, this is not by happenstance where we are. These are still in existence — economic, segregated, racist policies that are supported by leadership.”

WILSON: “I would ask you to look at our neighborhoods, and understand that this isn’t just for our downtown and thriving areas. This is also for our neighborhoods. Our neighborhoods don’t have a chance of economic development without reliable transportation. Mobility is key to get these neighborhoods on track. And for this not to happen, and for these neighborhoods to continue to be isolated, away from opportunities, away from the jobs, away from access to everything that’s viable and happening in the city is a crime. We need to get this done because that will spearhead economic development in these neighborhoods”

HARRIS: “Otherwise we’ll find ourselves right back in bankruptcy because we know downtown corridors and a three-mile radius does not provide the tax subsidy necessary for a city to thrive outside of bankruptcy over a long period of time. We’ll go right back to an economic recession because it’s the residential tax base that holds the city up. Those are the people that kept Detroit alive during the recession.”

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