Jan. 10--Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is expected to name as the next director of the city's troubled bus system a former leader of the suburban SMART bus operation that both men helped rescue from the brink in the 1990s.
Duggan may name Dan Dirks as the next Detroit Department of Transportation director as early as today, according to people familiar with the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of Duggan's announcement.
Dirks served as general manager of SMART in 1998-2007 before retiring after 30 years with the agency. He faces an enormous challenge: Fixing a bus system plagued by inefficient operations, outdated and breakdown-prone fleet of vehicles in a bankrupt city. The city subsidizes DDOT with tens of millions of dollars out of its general fund yearly. DDOT's daily ridership is about 100,000, while SMART's is about 35,000.
Dirks couldn't be reached for comment, and Duggan's office declined to confirm the appointment on Thursday.
During the recent storm and deep freeze, huge numbers of city buses wouldn't start, leading to even longer than usual delays for riders stuck in dangerous cold weather waiting for buses. The city has slashed routes and the frequency of buses in recent years as Detroit struggled with budget deficits.
Duggan earlier this week said he was disturbed after seeing so many people waiting in the bitter cold for no-show buses.
"I just feel terrible -- if my car were bigger I would have stopped to pick them up," he said. "We've got to make the bus system first class in this city. I'm going to work really hard to do it."
Duggan took over SMART in the early 1990s when it was on the brink of bankruptcy and at times without cash to meet payroll as state funding declined. Duggan and a team at SMART that included Dirks initiated a period of streamlined service and redesigned routes that focused on boosting ridership targeted to three groups: people headed to jobs, seniors and people with disabilities. The effort also expanded options for van rides and the like in local communities.
Duggan's team in 1995 persuaded voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to support a property tax millage to fund the suburban bus service. The improvements quickly scored ridership increases that were among the tops in the nation in the late 1990s.
Dirks "was very much focused on the quality of service, which I think could be a real positive" in Detroit, said Megan Owens, executive director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United.
Owens noted that DDOT has gone through four directors in the last several years, including two outside management companies brought in to shake up DDOT after service and reliability dipped to new lows.
"The last two directors did do some good analysis of what the problems are in DDOT and prepare recommendations for improvements," Owens said. "He does have a lot to build from."
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