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Bing's wrong bus stop

Why we must put the brakes on the mayor's proposed service cuts

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Published 8/19/2009

We read with interest last week's news that Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is considering the elimination of city bus service on Sundays and Saturday nights as one way to help reduce a deficit estimated to be about $350 million.

That's it, Bingo — make hitting the poor where it hurts most one of your first budget-balancing moves.

It has surely been a long time since our new mayor had to take a bus anywhere. As a former pro basketball star who went on to become a millionaire businessman, affording a car — and the gas to keep it running — certainly wasn't an issue. And these days the city provides him with a vehicle and a security detail that chauffeurs him around in it.

In other words, there's little connection with the daily reality faced by untold numbers of Detroiters who can't afford a car, or auto insurance, or even gas. People who absolutely need a bus to get to and from work, often in the suburbs.

Henry Gaffney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents about 1,000 city bus drivers, says DDOT provides about 50,000 rides on Sundays and another 20,000 on Saturday nights. These people aren't taking the bus because it's particularly fun or convenient. They do it because they have no other choice.

As Megan Owens, director of the Detroit-based nonprofit Transportation Riders United, pointed out, "People's lives don't stop at 6 o'clock on Saturday night. They need to get to work, go grocery shopping, go to church."

This is a city where an estimated one-third of the households have no car. What does Bingo expect these people to do? Take a cab? Right — spend $30 or $40 each way to get to and from a job that pays minimum wage. Or they would be forced to spend money on an unreliable junker that would be expensive to maintain.

As for those who can't afford even a cheap used car (and the insurance needed to legally drive it), there is no doubt that this proposal, if carried out, would cost people their jobs. Which means more people lined up to collect unemployment and fewer tax dollars. Which makes this proposal not only heartless, but also fiscally shortsighted. With unemployment reaching a Depression-like 25 percent, the last thing Detroit needs is more people without jobs.

There are other potential consequences as well. Owens points out that both the Detroit Department of Transportation and SMART, which serves the suburbs and, on a limited basis, the city, could both lose state funding that's tied to the combined local investment in those two systems. And, as Owens also points out, at a time when were are working to get a light rail line going, what kind of message does this send to the federal government as it evaluates this region's commitment to public transportation?

It has been suggested that SMART might be able to pick up some of the slack, but that system has funding issues of its own; a 50-cent increase to $2 is currently being considered. Given that, there's little chance the city will get a free ride if SMART has to increase service. And even if it does, it will be along major routes, not in the neighborhoods.

Moreover, the Bing administration didn't talk about options with SMART before news of this proposal broke. In fact, as of Tuesday, the city still hadn't broached this subject with its suburban counterparts.

The bottom line is that, on a number of different levels, the proposed cuts have the potential to be "devastating," says Owens.

The good news is that this is still just a (horribly misguided) proposal and not a done deal. We can do things to help Bing, who is facing re-election, change his mind. Start with calling his office at 313-224-3400. Also, try to get to one of the public hearings being held at four locations around town next week. You can find details about when and where they are at TRU's website at detroittransit.org or call DDOT at 313-933-1300.

This is a bus we all need to jump on.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.

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