A decade ago, the idea of Detroit's DDOT bus service and the suburban SMART system working together on a project would have sounded pretty ludicrous. The two bus agencies haven't exactly enjoyed the rosiest of relationships over the years, with funding and operational jurisdiction being sources of tension.
With the prodding of Southeast Michigan's Regional Transit Authority (RTA), however, the prospect of a jointly operated transit venture is on its way to becoming a reality. DDOT and SMART are now pooling their energies to create a new express bus service that could launch as early as this summer.
The new express line, refleX, will feature 13 stops on each of two corridors connecting Motown with its suburban neighbors, one along Woodward Avenue, and another on Gratiot Avenue. Both will start off at Fort Street and Brush Street in Detroit's Bricktown neighborhood. The Woodward route, which will extend to Somerset Mall in Troy, will be run by DDOT and carry passengers in and out of Oakland County. As for the Gratiot route, it'll be operated by SMART and travel between Detroit and Macomb County, stretching out to the North River Park and Ride in Mt. Clemens.
As an express service, refleX would have fewer stops and forego the need for transfers in order to facilitate faster travel.
The refleX name is a merger of the words "regional," "flexibility" and "express." The new line will feature its own distinctively branded buses and special sheltered bus stops.
The origins of refleX date back to last fall, when RTA chief Michael Ford asked SMART to restore all-day bus service into Detroit along the two corridors. Later DDOT came to the table, and a deal was hashed out for a jointly operated line.
Southeast Michigan's RTA board approved the project at a March 17 meeting. Under the current plan, refleX buses will run every 45 minutes, seven days a week, during scheduled hours; the service will be active 5 a.m. to midnight on weekdays, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.
As it currently stands, the refleX service would cost $5.6 million a year to operate. The three-year pilot project will be funded with state transportation money and bus fare revenue.
In a statement, the RTA praised SMART and DDOT for working together to make the refleX line happen:
"These leaders have been forward thinking and have had visions of transit that aligns with the vision and mission of the RTA. This first step lays the groundwork for transit between communities. It opens the door to solving the larger issue, regional rapid transit for all of southeast Michigan."
The RTA is also in the process of developing an even faster Bus Rapid Transit line along Woodward Ave. and is expected to put a funding proposal before voters on this November's ballot.
Asked for her thoughts on the project, Ruth Johnson, assistant director of Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy group, was cautiously optimistic.
"I think it's great for DDOT and SMART, with the encouragement of the RTA, to better coordinate current and future bus service on the two corridors," she said. "I think it would be better, rather than just look at those two corridors independently, to look at it through the [vantage point of the] four-county planning process to make sure we are allocating resources properly."
Over the last year, the RTA has been developing a four-county master plan to coordinate regional transit.
Noting that details on the new service weren't readily available on DDOT, SMART or RTA websites, though, Johson added that she'd like access to more information in order to make a proper evaluation.
Fred Westbrook, President of Almagamated Transit Union Local 26, which represents DDOT drivers, isn't a fan of refleX.
He believes if there's going to be a new express line at all, it should be run by DDOT, so Detroit's bus agency can benefit from suburban fare revenue. The union leader thinks that's only fair considering SMART already operates in Detroit and has had millions in dollars of funding shifted over to it from DDOT in recent years.
That said, Westbrook doesn't think the refleX service is really needed.
"You already have SMART on Gratiot and Woodward that does an express service [during] peak hours," he says. "And then you have [DDOT] on Gratiot and Woodward that runs every 10-12 minutes... An express service is not needed."
The ATU local president believes money on the new bus service would be better directed towards expanding SMART's service in the suburbs and increasing DDOT's frequency in underserved areas of Detroit.