|SOUTHEASTERN MICHIGAN TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY
|SEMTA HISTORY - PART I: DETROIT'S MOVE TOWARD REGIONAL MASS TRANSIT
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S MOVE TO SAVE PUBLIC TRANSIT:
During World War II, transit ridership across the United States would skyrocket, as transit agencies across the country
would benefit from a government imposed rationing of gasoline implemented during the war, which forced Americans
to turn to public transit in droves. But that period in U.S. history would be the last hurrah for public transit in America,
especially for those transit systems that were privately-owned. Not only was the automobile now much more
affordable for many American families after the war, but the construction of new roadways and federally-financed
expressways, including the Interstate Highway System, made automobile commuting more attractive. As quickly as
1950, transit ridership numbers across the country had plummeted to record lows.
With a decline in ridership and revenues, many transit companies were forced to abandon their streetcars (with their
high capital costs) for less expensive diesel coaches. Many city governments were forced to take-over transit
operations from privately-owned companies and form publicly-owned transit authorities. But continued ridership
loses, coupled with high labor costs, employee strikes, and inflation, would take its toll on the industry. By the 1960s,
public transit had ceased as a profit-making enterprise. An industry that once paid taxes to municipal governments
now had to depend on local tax dollars to survive. Since the federal government had already been financing the
building of new roads since 1916, many desperate cities now began turning to the federal government and asking for
similar funding to support public transit.
The move in the direction toward federal participation in local transportation funding was stimulated by a "Special
Message to Congress on Transportation" written by President John F. Kennedy on April 5, 1962. In that message, the
President recommended that Congress establish a long-term program of Federal aid to urban mass transportation in
the form of direct grants to regional mass transportation systems across the country. That message opened a new
era in urban transportation and would lead to this country's first real effort to provide federal assistance for urban
mass transportation development.
In 1964, the 88th United States Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-365).
Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 9, 1964, the act provided $375 million for large-scale urban
public or private rail projects in the form of matching funds to cities and states.
The objective of the act was "...to encourage the planning and establishment of area-wide urban mass transportation
systems needed for economical and desirable urban development." The Urban Mass Transportation Act would
authorize federal capital grants for up to two-thirds of the cost of transit improvements, including equipment for mass
transportation (including buses), and the construction and reconstruction of transit facilities. However, all federal funds
had to be channeled through approved public agencies. The releasing of these new federal grant dollars would no
doubt positively impact public transit operations across the country, including here in Metro Detroit.
THE METRO DETROIT PRE-SEMTA YEARS:
Meanwhile, public transportation within the Metropolitan Detroit area during the 1960s consisted of the Detroit owned
and operated Department of Street Railways (DSR), and a number of privately-owned suburban bus companies,
including DeLuxe Motor Stages, Great Lakes Transit Corp., Lake Shore Coach Lines, Martin Lines, Metropolitan
Transit Inc., and Northville Coach Lines. However, the decline in patronage and revenues experienced by transit
operations nation-wide was also being experienced by Detroit area bus companies, including the DSR. It was
becoming more obvious that a regional transportation approach would be needed, not only to access federal dollars,
but for public transit to survive in Metro Detroit.
Detroit's first move toward regional transit came in early 1964, when then DSR general manager Lucas S. Miel
proposed saving the financially-troubled system by merging it with a proposed three-county transit agency. While the
city charter mandated that the DSR must operate from fare box revenues alone, a newly-created transit authority would
be able to receive tax subsidies. With the support of Mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh, a charter amendment proposal
came under consideration which sought to merge the DSR with a newly-formed public transportation department,
tentatively known as the Rapid Transit Authority. The amendment would also authorize the DSR to extend its
operating area ten miles beyond the city limits, pending approval from the state legislature.
But the initial proposal couldn't muster enough support. Instead, Detroit voters were asked to approve a charter
amendment change allowing the DSR to participate in the Federal Government's $375 million urban-transportation
aid program passed by the U.S. Congress a few months prior. The proposed amendment would authorize the
Common Council to appropriate from the city's general fund the required (one-third) matching monies needed for the
DSR to obtain federal grants. This, along with a few other changes implemented by the approved charter
amendment, managed to momentarily keep the DSR afloat.
Even though the Sept. 1964 city charter changes would manage to temporarily give the Detroit system new life, it still
didn't address the region's pressing need to address transportation funding on a regional basis. With the
surrounding suburbs still being serviced by the six financially-strapped independent bus companies, the passage of
the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 helped to generate discussions toward a southeast Michigan region–wide
approach. Such a system would meet the new federal requirement leanings toward regional transit planning and
better qualify the area for newly available federal capital grants.
Once again, Detroit city officials were quick to jump on the regional transit bandwagon. Mayor Cavanaugh, along with
his special assistant, Robert E. Toohey (who Cavanaugh later appointed DSR general manager in 1968), worked
feverishly in pushing toward forming a regional authority that favored control by the City and the DSR, rather than the
city system being absorbed by a regional system. However, most out-state lawmakers were reluctant to go along with
the Detroit plan and instead had a different idea in mind.
REGIONAL TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY CREATED:
On July 10, 1967, the Michigan State Legislature passed the Metropolitan Transportation Authorities Act of 1967
(Public Act 204), which authorized the creation of numerous metropolitan transportation authorities across the state.
One provision within this new legislation (Section 124.405) specified the formation of the Southeastern Michigan
Transportation Authority (SEMTA). This newly founded regional transit authority was organized with the long-range
goal of developing and operating a coordinated public mass transportation system within the seven-county Detroit
metropolitan region. Those counties included in the authority were: Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw,
and Wayne. The mostly rural Livingston County would come on board sometime shortly afterward.
This new authority — defined by the enabling legislation as a public benefit agency and an instrumentality of the state
with all the powers of a public corporation — was not only charged with planning, constructing, maintaining, replacing,
improving, extending and contracting for services between the numerous transit providers located within its territorial
boundaries, but to eventually acquire and consolidate the eighteen bus companies which operated within the region.
These companies included a number of intercity bus operations; the six financially-strapped transit bus companies
that ran between Detroit and its surrounding suburbs; and a few even smaller operations outside the city limits, such
as The Bee Line, Pontiac Transit Corp. and Port Huron Transit Co. This legislation also opened the door for the new
authority to acquire the City of Detroit's owned and operated DSR bus system.
Unfortunately, this new legislation did not grant SEMTA with any powers to levy taxes or with any continuing source of
funding. Consequently, during its early years, SEMTA had to rely primarily upon state grants and private sources for its
operational costs; in hiring consultants; performing transit studies; surveying existing bus companies; and launching
experimental bus routes. In addition, the fledging system had to depend upon the financial assistance provided by
the local communities and transit properties within its territory to acquire federal funds. The assistance provided by
these agencies would help to provide the matching one-third local share money needed to qualify for federal grants.
This method of generating funds would have to suffice until other funding sources could be obtained. It would be this
type of joint financial cooperation that would assist SEMTA in obtaining federal funding to confront the first major crisis
encountered so far in the young organization's history.
SEMTA's FIRST BUS COMPANY ACQUISITION:
On February 9, 1971, the suburban Lake Shore Coach Lines company — which serviced the five Grosse Pointe
communities and St. Clair Shores into downtown Detroit — announced it would cease operations at midnight
February 28. Although the company carried 7,000 riders daily, it lost $14,650 in 1970, and $9,680 during January,
1971. After a last minute Wayne County Circuit Court order to keep service operating was lifted on April 22, and a new
July 31 shutdown date announced, the company would reach an agreement with SEMTA on July 29 to continue
operations until September 1 Meanwhile, SEMTA was able to persuade the six communities serviced by the company
to provide (on a pro rata basis) the required $78,000 local share money needed to acquire a $156,000 federal UMTA
grant to purchase the company.
In addition, the six communities had also agreed to collectively pay up to $5,000 per month for any operational loses
sustained by SEMTA in keeping the Lake Shore line running through December 31, 1972. SEMTA officials were
hopeful that by then, Governor William G. Milliken's proposed 1971 Mass Transportation Bill (House Bill 5707) —
which had been passed by the House but stalled in the Senate Committee on Highways since February 1971 —
would have become a reality and provide SEMTA with an ongoing source of funding, Passage of the bill would
eliminate the need for the use of community subsidies to keep the lines running.
With the acquisition of Lake Shore Coach Lines, effective September 1, 1971, SEMTA had become (for the very first
time) an official operating agency. The Authority now owned 44 buses (with the latest models purchased in 1967), four
bus routes, and one bus garage located on Edlie Street south of E. Jefferson in Detroit. The four routes were
numbered L-1 thru L-4 and became SEMTA's new Lake Shore Division. To help bolster service, SEMTA immediately
acquired ten retired GM TDH-5105 "old-look" coaches for $17,000 from the Detroit DSR, which were renumbered
#430-439. Two more TDH-5105's were purchased in 1972, one from Great Lakes Transit and another from the DSR
(renumbered #440-441 respectively), bringing the total Lake Shore fleet to 56 buses. The four year old SEMTA was
now officially in the business of operating transit buses.
For "SEMTA HISTORY: THE REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY MOVES FORWARD" See: PART-II
The above article was complied from information gathered from various Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News newspaper articles
supplied by Stan Sycko; and from miscellaneous Jack E. Schramm MCA articles on the history of SEMTA and SMART, and on Detroit
suburban buses. Additional sources include, the 1977 SEMTA Annual Report; various newspaper articles from the Jan. 28 thru Sept. 2,
1971 editions of the Grosse Pointe News; the August 10, 1972 edition of the Grosse Pointe News; and the EH.net online article "Urban
Mass Transit In The United States"
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.
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