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Detroit’s neglected infrastructure desperate for improvement

Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio

Attorneys are back in a Detroit bankruptcy court this week, arguing over whether the city qualifies for what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

The thinking goes like this: Cut the Motor City loose from some of its crushing debt and legacy costs – pegged at around $18 billion.

But even if that happens, the city will still have a huge task ahead of it: making a city infrastructure built for 2 million people work for a population that’s now under 700,000.

(As Rodney Dangerfield might say:) Take the buses. Please.

Detroit’s buses are notorious for being late, and breaking down. Just last month, the whole system shut down for a day over a threat of a sick-out by its drivers, who say working conditions are flat-out dangerous.

The drivers’ union president said attacks on drivers by angry passengers put four drivers in the hospital in the space of a week. Two were stabbed.

“You always have to be on your guard,” said Nikia Walker, who rides the Grand River bus. "I’m scared to pull my phone out, anything. I’m scared to pull my wallet out sometimes.”

The bus Walker was on was full. At one stop, a woman in a wheelchair had to be left on the curb because there was no room for her.

Passengers say this kind of thing happens all the time.

“I’ve lost three jobs because of the bus,” said Takara Reaves. “There would be a bus that don’t show up, or they would be late, or I’d be on a bus that broke down. And your employer only want to hear ‘the bus broke down, or the bus was late, or the bus didn’t come’ so many times, before they think you just don’t want to come to work. And it’s not like that.”

One-third of city’s workforce out sick daily

Gary Brown is Detroit’s new COO. He says there are two basic functions of city government that are broken.

The first thing: On any given day, Brown says 30-35 percent of the city’s workforce is out sick.

Secondly,” said Brown, “we don’t fix vehicles well. No kind of vehicle. Right now I have 400 buses. Only 200 of them work. I need 300 in order to operate.”

Brown says the city’s bringing in a company that will investigate whether workers are actually sick. And vehicle maintenance – for buses, ambulances, police cars, everything – is going to get outsourced.

Lights out

Another city service that’s getting an overhaul is street lighting. It’s estimated that close to half the city’s lights don’t work. Bulbs are broken, poles are falling down, and copper wire’s been stolen.

“You’ve got a system that hasn’t been properly maintained or invested in more than 50 years,” said Odis Jones, executive director of the newly created Public Lighting Authority of Detroit.

The authority is supposed to fix those problems over the next three years. And Jones says the challenge is not an engineering one.

“My second day on the job, the city went and filed bankruptcy,” said Jones. “So the task at hand is, how do you finance improvements to our lighting system in an environment where you have the largest city in American history to file for bankruptcy?”

Jones says despite the bankruptcy, he’s confident the bond markets will lend the authority the money it needs to fix the lights. The authority has asked the judge overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy case to give his blessing to a deal that would allow it to borrow $60 million to get started. Crews have just completed work in two pilot areas that will be the first to see the lights turned back on.

That would make Shameka Smith happy. She says kids in her neighborhood have to walk to school in the dark.

“It’s just not safe,” said Smith. “We’re paying taxes … and we don’t have working street lights. I’m not understanding what the problem is with the city.”

‘I’m not sure we’re asking strategic questions’

The problem, of course, is that the city is broke. It’s got to figure out a way to cope with decades of disinvestment, and support an infrastructure built for twice as many people as live there now, with a tax base less than half what it was in the 1950s.

“The courts aren’t going to figure out how to fix that for us,” said Eric Scorsone, a municipal finance expert at Michigan State University. “They’re basically going to say you owe x amount, you can only pay y, that’s what we’re going to figure out. The city’s operations and everything else are not going to be part of the bankruptcy ultimately. They’re going to have to be figured out outside bankruptcy.”

Scorsone says bankruptcy will help reduce the legacy costs that are making Detroit’s systems unsustainable. But Scorsone says while bankruptcy is all-consuming right now, it’s not clear city officials are asking a critical question: for the city today, what is the infrastructure it really needs?

“Because what we have,” he says, “is a city with an infrastructure of 80, 100 years ago. And I guess the question today is, is that even the relevant infrastructure anymore?”

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Radio’s Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.