Feds Lift Funding Restrictions on Detroit Bus System
By Matt Helms
Detroit's bus system is making significant improvements, enough that the U.S. government is lifting financial restrictions on how the agency can access federal funding.
In a letter sent in late December, the government notified the city that it was removing controls placed on the Detroit Department of Transportation, which lost its ability to easily access Federal Transit Administration grant funding in March 2013 as the city careened toward bankruptcy and city services such as busing declined rapidly.
The FTA said it imposed the restrictions because Detroit wasn't meeting federal requirements related to on-time bus pullouts and maintenance -- a decision that was reaffirmed as late as March 2015.
Since then, Detroit has made huge strides, and the restrictions were lifted last month, although the FTA's Chicago-based regional staff will continue to meet quarterly with DDOT officials to review the city's continued compliance, according to the letter from Marisol Simon, regional administrator of the FTA's Region 5 in Chicago.
"FTA is very pleased with the improvements DDOT has made and we congratulate you on your efforts," Simon said in the letter.
The FTA listed a number of area of progress by DDOT, including:
* An on-time bus departure rate of 98% as of November, up from 62% in January 2014.
* Meeting and exceeding federally required preventative maintenance on buses.
* Upgraded procurement procedures, bus fleet management plan and standardized administrative operating procedures as well as an overall asset management plan.
* Improved used of spending funds in old federal grants that had sat idle.
DDOT service suffered greatly as Detroit's financial meltdown worsened under former Mayor Dave Bing, who was forced to make cuts as city revenues declined and its financial obligations became insurmountable, leading to the largest-ever municipal bankruptcy filing in July 2013. DDOT had pared back its service by as much as 50% over the years.
After the city emerged from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in December 2014, Dan Dirks, former manager of the suburban SMART bus system was hired to help revamp DDOT. With federal grant funding helped along by Vice President Joe Biden -- who is visiting Detroit today and will appear Tuesday with Mayor Mike Duggan at a small business event -- DDOT purchased 80 new buses in 2015, allowing the agency to meet its posted schedules for the first time in two decades. DDOT had been able to keep as little as 58% of its aging fleet on the road in 2014.
The new buses and improved operations have allowed Detroit to expand routes and increase frequency of buses, in addition to adding 24-hour service along some of its busiest routes: Woodward, Gratiot and Grand River.
Dirks said today that the FTA's decision was "great news." He said the agency performs triennial audits on transit agencies nationwide, and Detroit's performance in 2013 "was probably the worst" one of the agency's audits uncovered.
Working with an FTA consultant, DDOT began tackling its performance deficiencies "one by one," Dirks said, and bus system administrators "spent a lot of time to make sure the agency had enough buses and drivers and on-time service."
The FTA's limitations on Detroit's access to funding meant DDOT had to get pre-approval for spending down its grant money, slowing down purchasing and contracting, Dirks said.
"We don't have to do that now," he said. "The FTA has been really great to work with. We look to them in a much different light than existed in 2013."
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