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 the city's finances.
In his State of the City address on Wednesday, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said financial catastrophe can be avoided by making sharp cuts, particularly in public transit.
"There will be a short-term pain for a long-term gain, and there's no way around it," Bing said.
But bus riders and drivers in Detroit say they don't know if the beleaguered system can stand any more pain. At a downtown Detroit bus stop, Toni Coleman feels frustrated. The bus is late again, and now she will be late to work, too.
"Now I'm having to get off work almost an hour earlier because I can't get on a bus at 5 o'clock," Coleman says. "The buses are too crowded, and they don't stop. Hours' worth of pay because of the changes in the bus system."
Coleman is one of more than 100,000 Detroiters who depend on buses for daily travel. There have 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 difficulty.
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.
"You have to get off that bus — 8 Mile," Ingram says, explaining her route. "Then you gotta cross over then get on this bus, another bus, then go downtown and catch another. You know. "
Detroit state and federal officials have been talking about creating a regional transit system, but so far it remains just talk.
"They don't care about low-income people or people that do catch the bus, as far as going to school or going back and forth to work," Ingram says.
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.
"The system has not been adjusted or modified to accommodate what is really a declining population," Freeland says. "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."
Some Detroit bus drivers say what they need is more information. Some of them say they did not even know they now report to a private management team.
"I haven't seen a memo," veteran Detroit bus driver Mack James says. "You know, I read about it in the newspaper."
James says that 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 other drivers are in limbo.
"I mean, we're on the wire, as far as job security," James says. "We 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."
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.