MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The city of Detroit is running out of cash. Next month, it might not make payroll. And the state of Michigan is considering taking control of Detroit's finances. In his State of the City Address last night, Mayor Dave Bing said financial catastrophe can be avoided by making sharp cuts, particularly in public transit.
MAYOR DAVE BING: There will be a short-term pain for a long-term gain and there's no way around it.
BLOCK: But bus drivers and riders in Detroit say the system can't stand any more pain.
Here's Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BUS)
QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: At a downtown Detroit bus stop, Toni Coleman feels frustrated. Again, the bus is late again. And now she will be late to work, too.
TONI COLEMAN: Now, I'm having to get off work almost an hour earlier because I can't get on a bus at five o'clock. The buses are too crowded and they don't stop. Hour's worth of pay because of the changes in the bus system.
KLINEFELTER: Coleman's one of the more than 100,000 Detroiters who depend on buses for daily travel, but there's been fewer travel options of late after the city cut overnight bus service and eliminated several routes.
Unlike many major metropolitan areas, Detroit has a second separate bus line that serves roughly 40,000 suburbanites and drops them off in the city during the morning and evening rush hours, but just like in Detroit, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, or SMART, bus system, has cut back routes and limited schedules in the face of mounting financial difficulties.
About four miles from Detroit's city limits, Carlette Nicole Ingram settles into a SMART bus seat and prepares for a trip that used to take two hours and now takes four.
CARLETTE NICOLE INGRAM: I just get off that bus, eight miles, then you got to cross over, then get on this bus, another bus, then go downtown and catch a - you know.
KLINEFELTER: Detroit's state and federal officials have been talking about creating a regional transit system, but so far, it remains just talk.
INGRAM: You know, it makes me feel like they don't care about low income people or people that do catch the bus for going to school or going back and forth to work.
KLINEFELTER: A few weeks ago, the city turned management of the system over to a private company and appointed Ronald Freeland CEO of the Transportation Department. His first ideas about limiting cost might surprise riders.
RONALD FREELAND: The system has not been adjusted or modified to accommodate what is really a declining population, so therefore, we believe we have, quite frankly, too many buses. I'm sure some people would argue with that. That creates a number of problems. That is, you have more buses to maintain. You need more storage space. You need more fuel.
KLINEFELTER: And some Detroit bus drivers say what they need is more information.
MACK JAMES: I haven't seen a memo. You know, I read about it in the newspaper.
KLINEFELTER: Veteran Detroit bus driver, Mack James, notes about 80 drivers were going to be laid off until the city decided to wait until the new private management weighed in. Now, he says, he and the other drivers are in limbo.
JAMES: I mean, we're on a wire as far as job security. I mean, we're on the fence and we could fall off at any minute. Basically, right now, we waiting on this financial review team and then, from that point, anything could possibly happen.
KLINEFELTER: The state is combing through Detroit's books and could appoint a manager over the city's finances with the power to order Draconian cuts, including in the bus system. That state financial review team is expected to make its recommendations to the governor by the end of the month.
For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.