Metro Detroit bus drivers, riders and public transportation advocates say subpar wages are the root of a “silent crisis” of sparse and no-show buses and they want regional leaders to step up.
Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) drivers are among the lowest paid among major US cities. Pay for SMART drivers lags behind, too. Without increases, bus service in Detroit and beyond will continue to decline, a new report from Transportation Riders United (TRU) warns.
The Detroit-based nonprofit released a report Thursday that notes starting pay for DDOT drivers is $15 an hour, while SMART drivers start at $19.11 an hour. In comparison, drivers in Ann Arbor start at $28.65. The city’s job website, however, shows that DDOT drivers currently start at $16.15 an hour, which is still less than the $18 an hour starting pay for Amazon truck drivers. Starting pay for bus drivers in major cities like Chicago and Minneapolis is $28.99 and $26.16, respectively.
TRU Executive Director Megan Owens said during a Thursday rally outside the Rosa Parks Transit Center that drivers deserve a liveable wage and advocates want to see Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan get “personally involved with the contract discussions,” do more to increase driver wages, DDOT’s budget, and the service’s overall reliability.
According to DDOT Performance Dashboard data, only 61% of bus routes were running on time in June, the lowest since July 2022.
TRU’s report notes when buses fail to show up, “riders miss classes and appointments, waste money they can’t afford on Ubers or junker cars, and even lose their jobs, due to no fault of their own.”
Owens said it took almost a decade for DDOT to negotiate a new contract in recent years that brings driver pay up to $15 an hour, “which sounded great, but to be honest, you have to be competitive in today’s economy,” she said.
Corey McIsaac, a spokesperson for Duggan, said in a statement to BridgeDetroit that the mayor met with union leaders in February and proposed reopening the DDOT contract early to give the operators “substantial wage increases immediately.”
“So far, it appears the union leaders prefer to wait until the current contract expires before negotiating a new contract,” McIsaac added.
The existing contract ends in 2025. Schetrone Collier, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 26, which represents more than 350 DDOT drivers, said claims from the mayor’s office that union leaders preferred to wait is a “play on words.”
“(The mayor) didn’t wait to do what they needed to do with the police union because they saw there was a crisis,” Collier told BridgeDetroit. “My position is there’s a crisis at DDOT, we don’t need to negotiate a contract to increase wages.”
TRU is also calling on regional leaders, including Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Oakland County Executive David Coulter and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel to help resolve the essential transportation service crisis that the 20-year-old transit organization says “continues to act as a brake on the region’s economic recovery.”
Officials for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
For DDOT – the largest transit provider in the state – Collier said he wants the mayor and City Council to increase wages “because it’s just the right thing to do.”
“This is not about my members receiving a raise only,” he said. “We’re talking about the public not being serviced.”
There are currently 417 DDOT bus drivers, but the department is budgeted for 510. The city’s chronic driver shortage has real consequences for the people who rely on the system to get to school or work on a daily basis, TRU notes.
Just after Thursday’s rally the several dozen transit riders and advocates attended and spoke out at the SMART Board of Directors meeting in Detroit. The commenters demanded higher wages, a contract for SMART drivers and better service, recounting extended wait times or bus cancellations, Detroit Documenters report.
During the board meeting, SMART General Manager Dwight Ferrell noted driver shortages aren’t unique to SMART, they are nationwide, he said, and began before the pandemic.
“We are committed as an organization to providing the service that this region needs to grow and to develop,” he said. “If it was just wages alone, that would be much easier to deal with.”
In a Thursday statement, SMART said it is committed to building a reliable and efficient regional transit system that opens mobility access throughout southeast Michigan, “but we’re not there yet.”
SMART said the ongoing shortage of qualified drivers and resulting service reductions on some routes are “not acceptable” and “we’re working to fix the problem.”
“Compensation is an important first step. While we offer a generous benefits package, we recognize that the pay SMART currently offers to recruit and retain talent is not competitive,” the statement adds. “We need to pay more, and those negotiations are underway.”
SMART bus operators have been working without a union contract since the beginning of this year. Currently, SMART has 300 fixed-route operators and 98 paratransit operators. The goal is to employ 400 fixed-route operators and 145 paratransit drivers.
Recruitment efforts, including career fairs and targeting recruitment campaigns are ongoing.
Mikel Oglesby, executive director of transit for the city of Detroit, agreed in a Thursday statement that Detroiters “deserve reliable, dependable, and prompt transit service.” He also noted “significant strides” have been made with recruiting, hiring, and training of additional bus operators.
“We currently have 57 operators going through our training program,” he said. “I look forward to having these operators completely trained and on the road, providing service to our riders soon.”
Oglesby said DDOT is negotiating with its operators’ union for a compensation plan that is agreeable for everyone.
“DDOT cannot discuss ongoing negotiations, but we are optimistic that we will be able to soon announce that we have finalized a contract that will continue to provide Detroiters with the transportation they need,” he said.
Transit activist Michael Cunningham II said Thursday that there’s a reason why drivers in other cities are staying on the job while Detroit continues to lose its drivers, “money talks.”
“How the heck do you expect to maintain and keep drivers with low wages,” he said.
Renard Monczunski, a transit advocate with the Detroit People’s Platform Transit Justice Team, contends the low wages and overall poor condition of the city’s bus system are “no accident.”
“It’s really a civil rights issue that the state’s largest Black city does not have adequate and reliable public transportation,” Monczunski told BridgeDetroit. “This is all connected to driver compensation, it is connected to service being on time less than a third of the time, it is intentional.”
Monczunski said the public transit system being so unreliable is hurting the city’s young and working class population.
“That’s why people are leaving the city,” he said. “Car insurance costs and just the cost of owning a car keep people from actually being able to live and work here, so they leave.”
Earlier this month, state lawmakers passed a $82 billion budget that is expected to get the governor’s approval. About $261 million is earmarked for bus operating funds to departments throughout the state, including DDOT and SMART. Monczunski said the state has done its job.
“So now we need the city of Detroit and also our local leaders to follow through and address this operator crisis with this additional help,” he added.
Collier told BridgeDetroit during Thursday’s rally that along with low wages, safety also remains a concern for drivers and bus riders.
“There are things we could do to make it safer for us as drivers, like more secure doors, there are things we can do to make it safer for passengers and pedestrians, like new mirrors and cameras that take away all of our blind spots,” Collier said. “We just haven’t invested in those things yet.”
McIsaac said under Duggan’s leadership the city has created a dedicated transit police force and is in the process of recruiting to expand hours and coverage. The city also has installed on-bus cameras and protective barriers.
“If drivers or passengers have a specific concern, they should bring them to us directly,” she said.
Detroit Documenters contributed to this report.