|Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority
SEMTA HISTORY - PART II: THE MOVE AWAY FROM REGIONAL TRANSIT
Although negotiations appeared "quite productive" during late 1973, regarding the
Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority's plans to purchase the City of
Detroit's Department of Street Railways bus system, there remained guarded
optimism approaching the waning months of the Roman S. Gribbs administration. But that
optimism would soon change under the newly elected Coleman A. Young administration,
which took office in January of 1974. The negotiations would soon sour, as conflicts
developed over Detroit's representation numbers on the SEMTA board, and also over what
the Young administration perceived as SEMTA's lack of a guarantee to maintain adequate
service at a "reasonable fare" for Detroiters.
Disagreements also arose over whether a vote by the citizens of Detroit should be a
requirement before a SEMTA takeover could even take place -- a new provision just added
to the revised 1974 City Charter. Employee personnel issues, and the protection of the
rights of DSR employees also became major hurdles -- especially regarding who would pay
for employee fringe benefits. But the underlying major obstacle appeared to be more
centered around a continually growing distrust that was developing between the City of
Detroit and its surrounding suburbs.
Ironically, in July of the same year, the city-owned DSR bus system was slated to be
reorganized under Detroit's newly revised 1974 City Charter. The new revision would turn
the transit agency into a newly established city department. This now gave the city full
control of the department's operation and budget. Unlike the old charter, this new
arrangement allowed the City to finance any of the department's remaining operational
short-falls through the use of city general tax funds. It had been assumed back then that a
more secured regional funding source, dedicated solely to funding mass transit, would
eventually become available to SEMTA. This would eventually relieve the City from having
to further subsidize its bus system.
Unfortunately, any dedicated source of funding to support mass transit within the entire
region never materialized, and the anticipated take-over of the city-owned system by
SEMTA never transpired. What many anticipated as being a temporary arrangement
between the city and its transit system has basically continued now for over thirty-two years.
Although SEMTA never owned the Detroit system, it was still obligated by UMTA
regulations to provide federal funding to all the transit operations located within its territorial
boundaries. All federally funded projects requested by DDOT had to be approved and
funded through SEMTA. This, of course, resulted in numerous disputes throughout the
years between the two agencies, with the DDOT officials feeling that the city's
transportation department wasn't receiving its fair allotment of federal funding. All new bus
purchases for DDOT also had to be determined by SEMTA.
As far as a number of SEMTA achievements over the years, one would definitely have to
take into consideration the network of Park-and-Ride bus routes initiated between the
suburbs and downtown Detroit, the establishment of a uniform fare structure, the allowment
of transferring between DDOT and SEMTA routes, and the formation of its small-bus
Dial-a-Ride services. Over the years SEMTA gained a reputation of having clean and
on-time buses, and its service and performance record was often used in the media to slam
the faltering city-owned bus system.
Beginning in 1974, SEMTA contracted with Grand Trunk Western Railroad and began
offering commuter train service between Downtown Detroit and the city of Pontiac. In 1976,
SEMTA managed to purchase the locomotives, and the cars it used, and even built parking
lots along the route. Unfortunately, with downtown employment falling, the Detroit-Pontiac
commuter rail service was discontinued in 1983. Additional state funding for SEMTA did
materialize in October 1976 when a six-year surcharge on all license plates and auto title
fees within Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties brought in additional revenue for
But along-side those successes, one would sadly have to also consider a number of
failures. Perhaps one of the greatest SEMTA failures was its overseeing of the construction
of the downtown People Mover Project. Begun in 1983 -- as the first phase connector to a
future Woodward Avenue subway -- the project was plagued by mis-management, and
numerous construction mis-haps. Nearly $66 million in massive cost-overruns were being
projected. With threats now looming that the feds would soon cease all funding for the
remainder of the project, an agreement was reached with UMTA officials, where federal
funding for other SEMTA projects (including new buses) would have to be forfeited in order
to finish the project.
In March 1985, with the project still incomplete, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young was able
to convince the SEMTA Board to transfer final completion and control of the project over to
the City of Detroit. Consequently, total operation and complete control of the Downtown
People Mover fell under the city's newly created Detroit Transportation Corporation, and
continues so to this day.
Aside from the People Mover project fiasco, and the subsequent failure to begin
construction on a connecting subway and/or light-rail system, SEMTA's inability to take-over
the Detroit bus system has been considered by many to be the other of the two great
failures of the SEMTA years. Despite numerous attempts by the agency to merge the two
bus systems, it just couldn't overcome the overwhelming racial divide and distrust which
existed between Detroit and its suburbs. These two factors have resisted all attempts at
forming regional mass transit.
As the last of the eighties approached, it became more and more evident that the
surrounding metropolitan seven-county region had no intentions of supporting or taxing
themselves to build any rapid mass transit system associated with Detroit. In addition, the
region's outer-counties weren't interested in supporting any type of rapid transit, with many
feeling that SEMTA service wasn't needed within the outlying areas. The ability to provide
funding for the seven-county system was becoming an almost impossible task.
Consequently, a major change was needed.
On December 7, 1988, Public Act 204 was amended by the state legislature and SEMTA
was restructured from its seven-county jurisdiction, into a much smaller three-county
agency, which excluded the City of Detroit. It was renamed SMART (Suburban Mobility
Authority for Regional Transportation), and the new agency began operations on
January 17, 1989.
Although the demise of SEMTA basically spelled the end for any form of regional transit
funding and the development of regional mass-transit, it created an ironic twist for the
Detroit system. With the newly created agency no longer responsible for distributing federal
grants to Detroit, DDOT was now in the position to apply directly to the FTA for its own
grant money and operating subsidies. Although a seeming victory for the Detroit system,
the termination of SEMTA was viewed by some as a major step backward in bringing
regional mass transit to Southeastern Michigan.
Recently, John Hertel (a former state senator, well known state politician and the current
general manager of the Michigan State Fair) was appointed as the region's new transit
coordinator during a recent meeting of the region's Big Four political leaders on Mackinaw
Island. It's the hope of many that he will accomplish what many failed to do in nearly forty
years - that is, bring a coordinated regional mass transit system to the region. Of course,
only time will tell on this one, but if those past attitudes remain the same, then Hertel too will
be a dream not come true.
The two SMART articles were complied from information gathered from various Detroit Free Press and Detroit News
newspaper articles supplied by Stan Sycko, and from miscellaneous Jack Schramm articles on the history of SEMTA
and SMART. For a more detailed account on the history of both SEMTA and SMART, along with the history of the
Pontiac Bus System, see the October-December 2003 edition of Motor Coach Age magazine.
FOR "SEMTA HISTORY: THE MOVE TOWARD REGIONAL MASS TRANSIT" SEE: PART-I
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|The web-site which takes a look back at the history of public transportation in and around
the City of Detroit.
During SEMTA's early years the agency experimented with
several varied paint schemes. In this photo, an unknown
SEMTA GM Coach (TDH-5303) displays one of the system's
early colors and logo, while parked along Woodward Avenue
in downtown Detroit.
In this 1980 photo, former SEMTA operator S. Sycko stands in
front of coach #M1857, one of the first fleet of RTS-II coaches
(model TH-8203) purchased by SMART in 1978. Other coaches
in photo include, coach #39 (left) a former 1972 Metropolitan
Transit bus (model T8H-53507A), and coach #M522 (right) a
former 1963 Lake Shore Coach Line bus (model TDH-5303).
|In this 1980 photo, former SEMTA coach operator Stanley Sycko (badge #23144) stands along side one of
the first fleet of coaches purchased by SEMTA back in 1971. Delivered in early 1972, coach #M1268 was
originally one of ten GMC T8H-5307A's (#1266-1275) leased to Great Lakes Transit before that company
was bought by SEMTA in 1974. [photo courtesy of Stanley Sycko]