Bus Crisis In Detroit Hampers Riders

A bus crisis in Detroit has some people waiting up to three hours at bus stops, with close to half the city's fleet out of commission. Riders are complaining of losing jobs and having to drop classes because they can't get where they need to go. The problem is especially distressing in the Motor City, where about a third of residents don't have cars. Mayor Dave Bing is promising to do "whatever it takes" to fix the problem. He's accused the city's bus mechanics of a deliberate work slowdown. The union says Bing has laid off too many mechanics — hindering their ability to keep up with the work.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Well, now to some complications with vehicles in Detroit. On any given day, about half the city's buses are parked, waiting for repairs. For riders, that can mean hours of waiting at bus stops. And ultimately, it can mean missed appointments and lost jobs, as we hear from Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BUS)

SARAH HULETT: James Hill lives in Detroit and uses the bus every day. And he says he's learned to dedicate hours to getting from point A to point B. Hill says he took the bus to visit his son in the hospital a couple of weeks ago. He left the hospital at 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

JAMES HILL: I got home at 9:30. If you got a job, you got to catch a bus to your work, you're going to lose it because you're not going to get there on time because of the way the buses are running.

LATONYA PETERSON: I have (unintelligible) up several times on the verge of being fired.

HULETT: That's LaTonya Peterson(ph), who relies on the bus to get to her job as an office assistant. She says even when she gets to the bus stop an hour or two early, she's still late for work.

Curtis Jackson(ph) and Bonnie Mixon(ph) say the most frustrating thing, though, is when you've been waiting for an hour or two and there it is, the bus is coming, but it doesn't stop.

CURTIS JACKSON: It is so crowded they pass you up, you know?

BONNIE MIXON: Right.

JACKSON: And then it can be raining outside, you know, it's ridiculous. And now, you know, it's getting ready to become winter, and a person got to go through this? No.

HULETT: So many of the city's buses are waiting on repairs, in part because retirements have thinned the ranks of mechanics who service them. But officials with the mayor's office are also accusing the union that represents the 152 mechanics of a deliberate work slowdown to protest cuts to the department's overtime budget.

The president of the mechanics' union did not respond to requests for an interview, although he has denied there's any intentional work slowdown. But City Council President Charles Pugh thinks that's exactly what's going on.

CHARLES PUGH: People supplementing their salaries by five, seven, eight, 10, 12, $15,000 a year on just regular overtime that you've been getting every year for however long. We can't do that anymore. We're broke. We're more than broke. We're in a deficit that's growing upwards of $200 million.

HULETT: Pugh, who has his sights on the mayor's office, is also critical of how Mayor Dave Bing has handled the situation. Pugh says complaints have flooded city council members' phone lines since late August.

PUGH: It's almost November, and there's still no action.

HULETT: But Mayor Bing says he is taking action, initiating a series of meetings with the bus system's management and union leaders to get buses back on the road.

Mayor DAVE BING: I don't want to point fingers and lay blame. It's about taking care of our citizens. People are losing their jobs, the businesses are - they don't have the employees that they need right now to get jobs done.

HULETT: The mayor and city council appear to be giving mechanics something of an ultimatum: get the buses repaired and back on the road by mid-November, or they'll bring in private contractors to do the work.

Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of Detroiters who rely on the bus have little choice but to keep waiting. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett in Detroit.

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