This fall, the Detroit Department of Transportation will be under new leadership and some transit advocates and the union representing bus drivers are uneasy about what it might mean for a list of unprecedented restructuring initiatives already underway.
DDOT Director Mikel Oglesby, who joined the department at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, announced last month that he will be leaving at the end of October.
Oglesby has spent the last year leading the development and community engagement for “DDOT Reimagined,” a plan to rethink Detroit’s fixed bus route network and mobility options.
Schetrone Collier, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 26, which represents more than 350 Detroit bus drivers, worries that bringing new leadership in now could undo some of the progress Oglesby was making and said he sees the Reimagined plan as one thing that could be susceptible early on.
“Whoever comes in will come in with their own ideas for what is best,”Collier told BridgeDetroit. “They’ll want to make a mark and show themselves to be worthy of this job, and that causes people to do things that sometimes don’t make sense.”
The draft Reminaged plan, compiled following public meetings and rider surveys during 2022, calls for more frequent routes to ensure buses are arriving at least once every 20 minutes as well as upgraded bus shelters across the city. Collier said he and rider advocates have built a strong relationship with Oglesby, but feels now like he’s “back to square one.”
“It’s hard to make a transition from somebody you build a rapport with to somebody new,” he said. “It can be rocky when you start over and I guess I just have to be OK with that now.”
Like Collier, Renard Monczunski, an organizer with the Detroit People’s Platform Transit Justice Team, fears Oglesby’s departure could “threaten and disrupt” DDOT’s future.
“One part of the draft (Reminaged) plan I’m worried will change is the (proposed) reduced fare program for low-income residents,” Monczunski said. “It was never a done deal, but (Oglesby) listened to our ideas and listened to why a reduced fare pilot could help veterans, homeless people and others who are just struggling to keep up.”
Michael Cunningham II, a longtime DDOT rider, said Oglesby has gained the respect of advocates, like himself.
“He listened to us and made sure to attend the DDOT Community Input meetings every month,” Cunningham said. “Not every director we’ve dealt with has done that, but he made sure to listen to what we had to say.”
Oglesby told BridgeDetroit that he is committed to helping DDOT’s interim director, G. Michael Staley, through the transition. With DDOT Reimagined, he said, “we have developed everything that is needed for the future of the city of Detroit.” For those concerned that ground will be lost with his departure, he stressed “it was developed with the people’s input, by the people. It’s up to the people to make sure that it’s driven forward.”
Oglesby came to Detroit with three decades of transit experience in Miami. He joined the city amid pandemic-induced shutdowns that led to strict bus safety protocols to protect riders and drivers. He oversaw the launch of DDOT’s first electric buses, bus rapid transit planning and the construction of the State Fair Transit Center at the old Michigan State Fairgrounds as well as efforts to recruit bus drivers and negotiations to improve wages.
Oglesby said a three-year commitment “is a typical timeframe” for an executive director in a transit role.
“I put 100 percent of the time and effort in and at this juncture,” he added, “I decided it’s time to hold to what I said I planned on doing and start looking into the future.”
With Oglesby’s departure, Staley became the sixth DDOT director since 2013. DDOT has struggled with chronic driver shortages for years. Right now, the department remains about 100 drivers short. Oglesby said he’s “designed the blueprint for success” and when drivers have the pay they deserve he’s hopeful that the city will have the operators it needs in place.
“It (pay) is higher (than it had been in recent years), but let’s be clear that it’s not high enough,” he said. “And that’s why discussions have to continue between DDOT and the union to figure out how we’re going to get more money.”
Staley came to the department in June 2022 and was instrumental in addressing long-standing issues with the city’s paratransit contract with France-based Transdev last year, a company he formerly worked for when it was known as Veolia. Transdev, which had been running the city’s paratransit services for six years, was notorious among the city’s ADA community for leaving passengers at incorrect locations, not showing up at all and for poor customer service.
The city launched a new paratransit strategy in January, weeks after Detroit City Council voted 4-4 to reject a five-year contract with Transdev to provide 70% of Detroit’s paratransit services. While the vote was in response to a flood of community complaints, losing access to the service would have put Detroit at legal risk, so Mayor Mike Duggan penned emergency contracts with four companies to keep services at full capacity while officials sought bids for a longer term solution.
Since March, on-time performance for the paratransit service has been about 97 percent. The service provides about 5,000 riders per week and gets about five customer complaints weekly, DDOT officials said.
Staley said he’s already in the process of gathering data and information to figure out “what’s working and what’s not.”
“To keep it real simple; If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it is, fix it,” said Staley, who has been in the business for about 40 years.
“I know we’ve got some challenges ahead, particularly in the areas of safety and service reliability, but it makes no sense to me to undo things that are being done well right now,” he said. “It does make sense to me to start working on those things that aren’t working so well.”
The city’s bus system has been considered unreliable by many of the people who rely on it for daily transportation long before Oglesby arrived. As of June, the department’s performance dashboard data found that only 61% of buses were running on time, which is the lowest it’s been since July 2022.
Staley added although he’s only been on the periphery of the DDOT Reimagined discussions so far, he doesn’t expect there to be any kind of delays.
“In the immediate time frame – 30 to 60 days – I’m going to concern myself with DDOT Reimagined, and by that I mean, safer and more reliable service,” he said.
Monczunski said he will continue working with DDOT to find solutions to the city’s transportation issues. He hopes that Staley will “focus on the basics.”
“Focus on the operator crisis first before trying to reinvent our system,” he said. “You can’t reinvent the DDOT system when half the bucket keeps emptying of water and you’re trying to put more water into the bucket.”
Warriors on Wheels Founder and CEO Lisa Franklin, a Dearborn resident who formerly lived in Detroit, relied on Detroit’s paratransit system before eventually “finding alternatives” in 2022 due to Transdev running the system so poorly, she said.
“I think he (Staley) could be good at it (running DDOT) because paratransit has improved a lot since last year,” she said. “I just hope that after this little transition period that paratransit transit continues to improve.”
City Councilman Scott Benson, who represents the city’s District 3, said during a recent DDOT ridealong just after Oblesby announced his plans to leave the department that Oglesby has been “very responsible to the needs of the riders.”
Benson said he’s confident Staley will be effective as interim director. But the city, he said, will do a nationwide search for DDOT’s next leader. Duggan said in a statement announcing the leadership change that Staley’s performance will be evaluated for six months before deciding if he is best suited for that job.
Rochella Hopkins-Stweart, an organizer with the Detroit People’s Platform Transit Justice Team, said she hopes Duggan and the council can secure more funding for DDOT employees, something advocates say is the biggest barrier to filling the vacant bus driver jobs.
As of August, there were 417 DDOT bus drivers, but the department is budgeted for 510. Advocates like Hopkins-Stewart say the problem needs to be urgently addressed – no matter who is running the city’s bus system.
The city has tried filling the open positions with career fairs, through quarterly bonuses of $1,000 to drivers who don’t miss any days, and by negotiating wage increases with the driver’s union.
Transportation Riders United (TRU) Executive Director Megan Owens said the future of public transit in Detroit is less about the person running DDOT and more about the mayor and council being willing to give that person everything they need to succeed.
“A lot of it does come down to will (the DDOT director) have the funding to implement a lot of that DDOT Reimagined plan asks for,” she said. “That point comes to the mayor and the city council. Will they allocate enough funding to implement what residents and riders want to see?”
City Council President Mary Sheffield told BridgeDetroit via email that she thinks the DDOT plan is taking the city “in the right direction.”
Sheffield did not respond to questions about Oglesby and Staley, but told BridgeDetroit that increasing the amount of buses and frequencies, extending operation times to early mornings and weekends, and creating more protection from the elements in terms of shelters, heaters and benches “will improve ridership and rider experience in a tremendous way.”
“Though it is not perfect, nor finalized, I believe that we are looking to those who know the system the best, the riders,” Sheffield said.