MI: Transit expanding in Oakland County, with a few hiccups

June 28, 2024
The three keys to growth is figuring out where new routes need to go, how frequently buses should travel each route and getting enough drivers to run the buses and on-demand services.
Jun. 26—Public transit ridership is growing, but progress may vary. That's part of the message delivered Monday by the county's transit division manager, Eli Cooper, to the county commission's transit ad hoc committee.
Voters approved 10-year, 0.95 millage in 2022 to fund countywide transit. County officials wanted to bring together the existing SMART system with four regional authorities: North Oakland Transit (NOTA), West Oakland Transit (WOTA), the Older Persons Commission (OPC) and the People's Express (PEX) to expand routes and destinations.
"We're trying to get traction as fast as we can," Cooper said. "The numbers are positive in the community areas and a work in progress in the SMART area — but positive."
The three keys to growth is figuring out where new routes need to go, how frequently buses should travel each route and getting enough drivers to run the buses and on-demand services, such as Flex, he said.
Driver shortages remained a serious issue last year, followed by union-contract negotiations that created a hiring lag.
Cooper said ridership for WOTA and other small transit authorities is up an estimated 100% because services are no longer limited to senior citizens and people with disabilities.
Figures for SMART's entire coverage area shows of 4,383 planned buse routes, 829 didn't happen at some point between January and March this year. SMART tracks bus route figures through its entire service area, so it's unclear how many of the missed routes were in Oakland County. Commissioners have asked to get a more-detailed route report.
Cooper said a series of public meetings on ridership needs — what's working and what needs to change — will be planned as part of a new community transit planning contract.
He also shared a draft for a $2 million competitive bid program to improve access to the bus systems. A community may need to extend a sidewalk to the curb, add trees for shade or build a bus shelter, he said.
Once the commissioners approve the plan, Cooper's office will evaluate and rank the applications for projects that can be completed in 2025. Next year, Cooper's office will analyze how the program went and decide whether to offer it again, he said.
Novi Commissioner Ajay Raman, M.D., expressed concern that first-in applications would get priority for the grants, but Cooper said they'll be evaluated equally.
Cooper said the 6.3% drop in ridership during the winter is a seasonal fluctuation. One change the county has seen from SMART is a switch from counting the number of fares accepted by a bus for ridership to an automatic passenger counter. That way, Cooper said, a bus will be able to count a passenger who paid a full fare but transferred to a different bus as part of the trip. Cooper shared the regular per-fare count for fixed bus routes, 1,104,854, and the automatic passenger count, 1,546,765, in his report. Future reports will only have the automatic count numbers.
SMART still struggles with on-time performance, reaching 61.07%. Cooper said that figure will be a benchmark and used to measure improved performance. He meets regularly with each transit agency so they can work together to solve problems and find opportunities, he said.
Harmony Lloyd, SMART's vice president of planning and innovation, said her agency is asking drivers to volunteer to fill existing routes where drivers have called in sick. SMART needs about 80 more drivers and hiring fairs are helping fill the spots, she said. Once SMART finalizes a union contract with drivers, she expects to see more applications.
SMART recently hired a consultant to plan new routes and increase bus frequencies on certain routes. Public hearings on how to optimize SMART services will follow, she said. The key is finding what changes are optimal and affordable, she said. SMART's expansion will be coordinated with the smaller transit authorities to avoid duplicate routes, she said.
"No one wants to see an empty bus," she said. The plan would have to be approved by the Federal Transportation Administration.
Royal Oak Commissioner David Woodward asked if SMART will consider expanding routes to include more public schools, in part because some school districts are eliminating bus services.
Lloyd said Federal Transportation Administration rules bar SMART from establishing school-bus routes but some flexibility exists. A recent example is the new Route 759, which runs between Auburn Hills and White Lake.
Harbor Alternative High School is just outside where the route ends in White Lake, but school officials asked if SMART would extend the western end of its route to the school. The school would then serve as a layover stop for the driver, she said.
Transit advocates at the meeting shared their experiences on the new route, saying more bus stop signs are needed, as are pedestrian-friendly paths to the bus stops. Robert Pawlowski and Lukas Lasecki said having to cross M59 to get to a bus traveling in the opposite direction was, in a word, scary.
Commissioner and committee chairman Brendan Johnson agreed, calling the highway traffic "too fast and too furious."
West Bloomfield resident Gary Fiscus asked that Route 759 be adjusted to help people in poverty living in extended-stay hotels get to and from a grocery store. Currently, he said, they face a walk of a mile or more from the nearest bus stop.
Commissioners asked Cooper to find out how many of the county's 1.3 million residents live within three miles of a bus route. They also asked SMART to consider adding routes to serve the Grand River Corridor on the county's west side and for an estimate of when Oakland County will have a bus route to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.


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