The Detroit Department of Transportation is addressing two of its biggest needs – new buses and hiring more drivers.
DDOT officials announced Tuesday outside the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown that the city is replacing some of the oldest vehicles in its fleet with 28 new clean diesel buses and hosting several job fairs to recruit bus drivers, mechanics and service attendants.
Mikel Oglesby, the city’s executive director of transit, said the buses being decommissioned through the upgrade have been on the road since 2010 and all have traveled over 500,000 miles. Oglesby said the city will get another 10 buses by the end of 2022 and 10 more are expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2023.
“Which means by the first quarter of next year, all of these older 2010 buses – some call them clunkers – will be replaced by new clean diesel vehicles,” Oglesby said during a conference.
The new, 40-foot buses – or coaches – come with improved amenities for riders, such as better bicycle racks and USB chargers under each seat.
Transit advocates taking part in Tuesday’s announcement were eager to see more reliable buses added to DDOT’s fleet. The condition of city buses has been a long-standing concern and was among the improvements residents recently advocated for during a series of community input sessions.
Robert Pawlowski, a transit activist who frequently rides DDOT buses, said replacing the old coaches goes a long way to helping the city provide better bus service.
“I can tell you from riding the bus often, riders can tell the difference between one of the older buses in the fleet and one of the newer buses,” Pawlowski said.
Michael Cunningham, a taxi cab driver and transit activist in Detroit, said he’s eager for Detroiters who ride to have greater access to technology.
“There’s a lot of poor people and homeless people who ride the bus, and sometimes they desperately need to be able to charge their phone to talk to their families or call in to work or what have you, so having chargers on the bus is a great idea,” Cunningham said.
The cost per bus is approximately $515,000 – or $14.4 million total. Oglesby said the cost is being covered with a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant. The city also received four electric buses in May as a part of a pilot program to evaluate whether environmentally friendly buses can outperform clean diesel buses.
Detroit is also stepping up efforts to address its ongoing bus driver shortage. Oglesby estimates the department has lost 100 drivers since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
“We saw a steady and gradual decline of drivers once (the pandemic) started, but at the same time, the registry wasn’t open for people to get their class A drivers license,” he said. “So while people were going out, the mechanism to bring people in was shut down.”
The city on Tuesday held the first in a series of job fairs. Oglseby said his goal is to hire 80 to 100 drivers to fill the gaps the department has seen since the start of the pandemic.
The driver shortage is not new in Detroit. The city has about 450 drivers now, but Oglesby believes the city needs “well over 500” to run the type of system that he wants.
Schetrone Collier, the new president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, which represents DDOT drivers, told BridgeDetroit last month that DDOT needed new buses, more drivers and improved safety measures. On Tuesday, he said it looks like things are headed in the right direction.
“Presenting these new coaches and bringing them in shows a commitment from the city to not only change over its fleet, but also to provide the safe and reliable service that the citizens of Detroit badly need,” Collier said.
DDOT drivers start out making $14.71 an hour during commercial driver’s license training, which is about 12 weeks, then can earn $16.81 after their first 13 months. DDOT drivers max out at around $21.50 an hour, according to ATU Local 26, while on average SMART bus drivers make $23 an hour.
Collier said that despite the issues of not paying drivers as much as other departments, like SMART or Ann Arbor, DDOT still pays a “good living wage.”
“I have raised six children and sent them all to college driving the bus,” he said. “It’s a good job when it requires a certain personality, a willingness to do work, and understanding what it is to provide service to people. If you can do that, this is a great place to work.”
Shawn Rule, a project manager with the city who helps connect Detroiters with jobs. Rule said he doesn’t believe the job fairs alone are enough to fill the city’s need for drivers.
“We have to employ a number of tactics to get the people who need the jobs most to come in the door,” Rule said. “But once they are in the door, they can meet with us, interview on the spot and walk out of here with a job. We’ll even train them so they are ready to do the job.”
Detroiter Habib Clark-Bey showed up to Tuesday’s job fair at the Shoemaker Bus Terminal on St. Jean on the city’s east side. Clark-Bey first heard of the job fair through a friend of a friend.
“I just said, ‘you know what, let me come down here and see what they’re talking about, see what I can apply for and what I can qualify for,’” Clark-Bey told BridgeDetroit.
Clark-Bey went through an interview thinking he wanted a bus service attendant job, where he would keep the buses clean throughout the day. But after a 20-minute interview, he learned he could get a bus driving job if he got a standard driver’s license and then a commercial drivers license. He said this style of job fair made that possible.
“It’s a big benefit because it doesn’t just focus on that particular job, but they have other opportunities, other doors, and other people they can connect you with to help you get a good job,” he said.
Charles Binion, another Detroiter who showed up to the job fair, said he was interested in the job because he loves to drive.
“If I’m gonna drive all day, I might as well get paid for it,” Binion said.
Binion said he wasn’t sure what to expect, but later said he appreciated the way the interviewers spoke to him.
“This was fun, they talk to you with respect and don’t give you no hard time,” he said.
Binion said he technically applied for the job before he showed up, but like others who went to the job fair, he walked out with an offer in hand. Binion will start CDL training later this month.
DDOT is hosting a virtual job fair from 10 a.m. to noon on Aug. 16. Another in-person job fair will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Shoemaker terminal on Sept. 13. Find out more about job opportunities at DDOT on the department’s website.