Dan Dirks: Building on 'heart and soul' of DDOT

To say the Detroit Department of Transportation’s bus system has declined in the last decade is drastic understatement. With cutbacks in service, frequent delays, poorly maintained busses and a rash of violence, DDOT has devolved into an unreliable, often dangerous environment for both drivers and the city’s poorest residents who rely on the system to get to work and school.

In October, DDOT bus drivers staged a protest asking for police protection. Unfortunately, violence continues to plague the system, with a 14-year old clinging to life after being stabbed in the chest on the bus on Feb.12. DDOT is now deploying surveillance cameras and undercover police officers.

The system’s budget has been slashed multiple times in the last decade, and services cut accordingly. In 2012, the city ended overnight service along with another round of cuts, and mayor Dave Bing placed DDOT under private management.

In January, newly elected mayor Mike Duggan announced the appointment of Dan Dirks as DDOT’s new director. Dirks, 62, is a transportation expert and was general manager of SMART between 1998 and 2007.

Model D spoke with him to find out how he plans to turn DDOT around.

Model D: You are a little more than a month into your work at DDOT.  What have been some of the biggest surprises for you so far?

Dirks: We have a crisis here. We don’t have enough busses, and many times when we have enough busses, we don’t have enough drivers. And we are also very concerned about the safety and security of our customers and our drivers. So we are trying to address all three of those issues.

What’s most encouraging to me, and I have to tell you a little bit surprising given the bankruptcy and how much service cutbacks they’ve had, is the amount of caring that exists by DDOT employees for their customers and coworkers. It was very impressive to me.

The heart and soul is still here. So that’s why I have optimism that we will, hopefully not before too much longer, get buses on the road, get drivers to work, and create a safe and secure environment for all of our customers and employees.

Model D: You worked for SMART and then as a private transportation consultant.  How does DDOT compare with bus services elsewhere in the country in terms of service and safety?

Dirks: One of the biggest issues and difference with DDOT and other systems I’ve dealt with before is the bankruptcy and the effect it’s had on the operation here.

For example, we have too many buses, and one of the options we are looking at is trying to lease our unused buses. So I sat down with the folks who are in charge of the fare boxes -- because every bus needs a fare box. And what’s happened is once bankruptcy hit, the supplier of parts for the fare boxes stopped shipping parts. So the staff, being resourceful, started taking out the old fare boxes and cannibalizing for parts. And that worked well, they’ve been able to keep up on repairs.

So then you have this new director that walks in, and says we might be leasing some buses, and we have to get 50 fare boxes ready, and they look at me like "oh my goodness." So you’re running into little time bombs that quite honestly I would never have expected.

There is no doubt the buses haven't been maintained the way they should have, and one of the issues was not having the parts to do the work. Since bankruptcy, we are now able to receive parts and are able to pay the bills to our suppliers. So where before there was nothing employees could do, we are now starting to see some corrective action.

But I'm not going to lie; it is going to take quite a while to get the bus fleet up to the standards that our customers deserve.

Model D: Crains reported that the Federal Transit Administration's fiscal year 2012 triennial review showed DDOT's failure to maintain proper records for federal funding. To what do you attribute this failure, and what specific steps are you taking to rectify the situation?

Dirks: I spoke with the person from the FTA who has been monitoring this and basically what's happened is, over the last seven years as people have retired and not been replaced, others were not trained.

This was no willful effort on the part of DDOT; it was a matter of not having the right people in place to do the work.

In September, MV Transportation (the private management company that has been operating DDOT since 2012) filled those positions with experts. We have a ways to go, and FTA comes in monthly to monitor what we’ve been doing, but hopefully before the year is over, FTA will be comfortable with the way we are doing it.

This speaks to the need to start to build a process to develop managers and staff to take on those responsibilities. We will have some training classes; but we are not bringing in expensive trainers. Instead, we might have our director of finance or our procurement officer walk us though the FTA regs and process. So we are going to look to ourselves to solve these problems, and take charge of our own destiny.

Model D: Does technology have a role in solving these types of reporting and tracking problems going forward?

Dirks: Absolutely. One of the problems DDOT had was they were purchasing too many items at the last minute. So when you talk about technology, it could be as simple as a program for consumers of goods and services so they will know when to start the procurement process. And one of the things we are looking at implementing soon is a maintenance-monitoring program so mechanics can log in the work they are doing and the parts they are using.

Model D: What changes have you already begun implementing?

Dirks: The biggest thing is we have created is a union-management partnership working on those three major issues -- getting buses on the road, getting drivers to work, and creating a safe environment. They are coming up with specific actions, who is responsible, a time frame for getting actions done, and how to measure their success.

When we are talking about safety and security -- the drivers know what’s out there. We have the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 on a committee, and he knows, because he’s driven for a long time, when we are getting into maintenance issues. And having the AFSCME representative who’s been there, who’s turned the wrench and can talk about parts, who can talk about getting supplies, that’s what we need to know. Maybe one of the things that’s not been done here enough is using all of the expertise that we have.

Model D: We hear all about the negatives related to DDOT. What are some of the positive assets that DDOT has going for it, that can be used to build upon towards a better system?

Dirks: People really care about DDOT. You can build on that. We are not looking at the past, we are looking from today, forward, and I think it’s going to be a challenge, but the will is here to build on to make DDOT a good transit system.

That’s not to say maybe we shouldn’t expand service -- that’s a money issue -- but within the fiscal constraints we have, we will get the buses out and operating on time, and have our customers enjoy their trip.

Model D: How critical is an eventual merger between DDOT and SMART to create a functional regional transit system?

Dirks: Maybe a merger is coming down the road, maybe it's not, but the first thing we have to do with DDOT is to run our service well.

In saying that, SMART and DDOT need to start working closer together. The first meeting I had outside of DDOT was with John Hertel from SMART, and we have agreed to continue to sit down and talk about how SMART and DDOT can work together in the future. If you have both systems operating well, there are a lot of things we can do without merging if we can just get to the point of good basic transit. Even if you have a merger you will still have transfers, so we need to figure out ways to coordinate routes better, have our scheduling staff communicate with each other, and be able to provide basic information to the public on each other's services. All of those things, no matter what happens with a merger, need to happen.

Model D: The Detroit News reported the city is planning to raise bus fares by as much as $1 per one-way trip by 2022, also promising to restore routes. Where is DDOT with this plan, and how soon will it be implemented?

Dirks: While raising fares and increasing service is part of the plan of adjustments, no "cast in stone" decision have been made on when fares will be increased or the time frame on increasing service. I suspect that there will be a more gradual increase in fare and not a one time $1 raise in fare. At the same time, service increases will likely be similar.

Model D: Is there anything you’d like to say to the people of Detroit, and especially DDOT users?

Dirks: I am not asking people to be patient, because they’ve been more than patient. My goal is to try and make the service better, and I can tell you the employees here at DDOT are trying too. It’s going to take a little while. When we are not doing something right, we want to know about it. But people should know the effort is there to take the service up to a level that our customers deserve. Whatever service we have out there, it’s going to be on time, the driver will be courteous, and there will be a clean bus.

Nina Ignaczak is project editor for Model D's series on transportation. 

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Nina Ignaczak.

Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based writer and the editor of Metromode. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.
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