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8 Mile meeting shows hardening lines on regional transit

Apr 20, 2018

Metro Detroit’s divisions over expanding regional transit have only hardened recently.

That was one takeaway from a meeting of the Eight Mile Boulevard Association today. That organization focuses on supporting regional cooperation across the “8 Mile divide” that’s often seen as the iconic dividing line between Detroit and its suburbs.

Metro Detroit's "Big Four" regional leaders at the 8 Mile Boulevard Association meeting. From left: Moderator Ron Fournier, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

A meeting that ostensibly centered on promoting regional workforce development was dominated by the transit question. Detroit and Wayne County leaders want voters to decide on a new proposal that would expand transit services across southeast Michigan.

But Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson says he won’t “disrespect” the wishes of the nine communities that currently opt out of the suburban regional bus service.

And Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel says his voters are much more concerned with “fixing the roads.” Hackel advised that it was time to stop “pushing the issue,” and took serious exception to the suggestion that race plays a role in suburban counties’ resistance.

“I refuse to allow that [race] to continue to divide the region, because I will not let that happen,” Hackel said. “I embrace the region and will continue to do that, but we need to continue to solve problems by not leading with what we find to be our differences.”

But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called Patterson’s opinion in particular “absurd,” noting that regional transit systems that allow parts of the region to “opt out” end up looking like “swiss cheese.”

Duggan says the 2016 transit plan that voters in four counties, including Washtenaw County, rejected by a slight margin in 2016 was “not terrible,” but the current proposal builds on the region's existing bus systems, with more bus routes over more areas of Metro Detroit and additional transit services for outlying communities.

“So we went from a not-terrible proposal in 2016, to an outstanding proposal in 2018, and what drives me nuts is, if the voters get a chance to hear this, they’re going to like this plan,” Duggan said. “We just need a chance to talk to them about it.”

Duggan also noted that both Hackel and Patterson supported the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority when the state legislature approved it back in 2012. The RTA board will ultimately decide whether the new plan gets on the 2018 November ballot. Right now, the proposal is out for public feedback and comment.

The meeting also touched briefly on the state’s education woes.

Duggan, while noting that those woes exist far beyond Detroit, said he does see some role for himself in helping coordinate services between the city’s traditional public and charter schools.

While Detroit’s mayor has no formal power over either the Detroit Public Schools or the charter sector, Duggan says he foresees an announcement soon on a pilot plan to link up some charter and traditional public schools in the city soon.

“I believe you’re going to see in the next few weeks, the charters in Detroit and the Detroit Public Schools come together on that plan where I don’t run the schools, but I provide support for transportation and after-school programs,” he said.

Duggan first floated the idea of combined transportation and after-school programs for some Detroit public and charter schools in his State of the City address last month.