Detroit’s City Council wants to use $16 million in COVID-19 relief money for two Department of Transportation initiatives activists and transit union officials have been demanding for years.
In a closing resolution adopted last month alongside the 2022-23 fiscal budget, the council said $10 million should be earmarked for a low-income bus fare program and $6 million more should be used for one-time retention bonuses for DDOT bus drivers.
The funding is part of an overall pot of more than $826 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars coming to Detroit. DDOT has held public input sessions in recent weeks to discuss how it should spend $51 million allocated for the department.
Transit advocates have been urging city officials to implement income-based bus fare since 2017, according to Renard Monczunski, a transit justice organizer for the Detroit People’s Platform’s Transit Justice Team.
“It allows for equitable access for our most vulnerable residents and by allowing affordable fares to access DDOT, individuals that are experiencing homelessness, families and individuals with little to no income, returning citizens, and veterans are the intended beneficiaries of this program,” said Monczunski, noting the Detroit City Charter grants residents the right to “safe, reliable, and convenient public transportation – without regard to income.”
A DDOT analysis in 2019 found that establishing an income-based fare ordinance would reduce DDOT’s revenue between $3.5 million and $10 million annually.
As a result, the Detroit People’s Platform pressed for a $10 million investment for a low-income fare system in Detroit. DPP continued its call after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold due to the economic burden felt by Detroiters. DDOT already has a reduced fare program for people with disabilities and seniors 65 years and older, but some argue that they want it to go even further.
Ted Tansley, a city transit and mobility activist, said Detroit should fit low-income residents more broadly into the program so that “more people can qualify and get reduced-rate fare access to transportation.”
“It would certainly expand opportunities for people who cannot get transportation access affordably,” Tansley said. “I hope we see less need for it (reduced fare) in the long term as more (people) get better access to higher paying jobs and improved education as a result.”
Kristin Lukowski, a DDOT spokeswoman, said a low-income fare program study was added for consideration during the public discussions around how to spend the city’s ARPA funds.
“A low-income fare program study was one of many suggestions made by both the public and through this (City Council) resolution,” the city’s transportation department said in a statement.
DDOT officials noted that $6 million for driver retention bonuses also is on the table.
“DDOT has added front-line employee incentives as one of the possible ways on which to spend the ARPA replacement funding as a result of public input,” the statement reads. “The discussion is ongoing.”
Glenn Tolbert, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 president, which represents the city’s bus drivers, said he and the other union members have been discussing retention bonuses for more than three years.
“We are the lowest paid around the region,” he said. “…we have safety concerns, and just the safety concerns alone are enough to have people running to SMART, running to Ann Arbor, running to other entities.”
DDOT drivers make about $21.50 an hour while SMART drivers earn about $23 an hour, according to Tolbert. DDOT drivers will get raises each July until 2025, as part of a contract approved in April 2021. Prior to that, city bus drivers hadn’t had a raise in three years.
While Tolbert doesn’t think $6 million in retention bonuses is enough to adequately address the long-term problems DDOT’s 400 drivers face, he believes it could “stem the tide” for the time being. A proposed bonus amount per driver hasn’t been determined yet, but Tolber said the bonuses would be attendance based.
Tolbert couldn’t cite a dollar figure to solve the retention issue long-term, but he said safety concerns existed long before the coronavirus and without a “huge” investment from “some entity” like the city or the federal government, those concerns will continue.
“Frankly, we’re doing more work with less drivers, and it’s just getting tiresome,” he said.
Tolbert said DDOT needs at least another 150 drivers to “give Detroiters great service.”
“(Passengers) have gotten complacent,” he said. “The bus might be on time now, but that’s because they only come once every 40 minutes instead of once every 15 minutes.”