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Saying no to decent and reliable public transit

Jul 29, 2016

If I had young adult children I might have called last night and told them, “I’m sorry, but Metropolitan Detroit is hopeless. You should start planning to move somewhere like Chicago.”

That’s because yesterday, two selfish and short-sighted men sabotaged perhaps our last best hope to bring decent 21st century mass transit to a region that largely operates on a 1955 model with worse roads.

For years, intelligent people in both parties have been trying to do something about this. Detroit is the only city of any size in this nation where you can’t land at the airport and take some form of mass transit downtown.

We have no decent and reliable transit of any kind that connects the city with its far richer and far more populated suburbs.

The result is that employers in the ‘burbs often have jobs they can’t fill, and there are thousands in Detroit who would like to work, but don’t have cars, and hence have no practical way to get there.

A subway or even an interurban train system isn’t economically possible.

But a few years ago, the legislature did create something called the RTA, the Regional Transit Authority. It came up with a plan that would unite a four-county area – Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw – with a new service that would include a network of special buses that look more like railroad cars, have their own lanes, and provide fast services to and from key points including the metropolitan airport.

The RTA would also link up with and improve the existing bus systems in Detroit and the suburbs and make it much easier for job seekers to get from Point A to B.

The plan was to ask voters this year to approve a new, 1.2 mill property tax to build and run the system. It looked as though the only obstacle left was persuading the people.

But then the entire thing was sabotaged this week by two selfish men who are the equivalent of feudal barons of their counties, Brooks Patterson in Oakland County, and Mark Hackel in Macomb. Patterson is officially a Republican and Hackel a Democrat, but those designations are fairly meaningless; they are loyal only to the machines they control.

They and their vassals unexpectedly voted to prevent this from going on the ballot this week.

Hackel and Patterson don’t like the fact that they don’t control the system, that all that’s needed to pass it is an overall majority, which means if it does go on the ballot, it might be enacted even if, as some suspect, Macomb voters say no.

They said their counties need more power on the board, and more services to remote parts of their counties. But behind that is the fact that their counties are relatively rich, and parts of Wayne County are very poor. They’ve got theirs, and don’t want to help those who don’t.

But without workable mass transit, this region will continue to become less competitive.

There’s still a week or so in which they may be able to work something out. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is trying hard to do just that.

But if they fail, we are one step closer to being a place that, someone will tell our unbelieving grandchildren, was actually prosperous long ago.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.