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Winning Over Whites Up Woodward

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Tuesday, March 9, 2010

INTRO: Yesterday at the state capitol, the house transit subcommittee heard testimony from the American Public Transit Association. In the last 30 years, some 22 different transit projects for metro Detroit have failed. Transit advocates argue suburbanites didn’t want to travel shoulder to shoulder on trains with poor or non-white people. But that’s changing. Many suburban officials now believe they need transit. Their kids are moving elsewhere so they can do what their parents didn’t want to do. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.

In 1976, Detroit and its suburbs turned down $600 million from Washington. Tom Middleton was on his farm then near Clarkston. In the ‘90′s he was elected to the state legislature. He’s now an Oakland County Commissioner. Why does Middleton think metro Detroit didn’t get the money? It was the former Detroit mayor’s fault.

“Coleman Young set an atmosphere of non-cooperation. Everything he said tried to turn it into a racial issue and a guilt issue. If you’re going to try to get people to join as partnerships, he set the wrong atmosphere for it.”

Now the city and suburbs are starting to cooperate. On March 23, the state house and senate will be asked to create regional transit authorities around the state. Representative Marie Donigan is sponsoring the bills.

“When the federal government wants to meet with someone in Southeast Michigan they don’t know who to meet with. We’re not speaking in one voice about what it is we want. So that’s what this regional transit authority will do. It will have a board. It will have a CEO. It will have an office. It will have a phone number.”

The M1 and the Detroit Options for Growth projects are moving forward. They’ll form a line up to 8 mile road. They don’t need a regional transit authority to start up. But it will help. Donigan is from Royal Oak. She believes a rail line up Woodward will be the showpiece in a larger system.

“It’s hard for people to believe that it can really happen. But it can and it will. And then our local communities can really be involved.”

City managers in Ferndale, Royal Oak, Berkeley and Birmingham all want Woodward light rail and more. So does Brendan Frey. He is a lawyer in private practice.

“When I was younger I felt probably defensive and antagonistic toward the suburbs.”

Frey is volunteering with a group called the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. Getting communities involved is their goal. But when Frey was growing up, he sided with Coleman Young.

“Detroit had a bad rap. There were certainly racial issues that I did not experience in my multi-cultural, very diverse Detroit pubic school that I went to. Detroit Open School. You went to the suburbs and people were surprised to hear you lived in Detroit. You mean Detroit Detroit? Really Detroit? Where are you really from? That mind set is still pervasive in a lot of areas of our region. Those people who have that mind set can be overcome.”

Frey’s group is trying to convince local governments to reduce their fossil fuel energy purchases. Make 25% of them renewable. Saving energy might sound boring. But it’s worked for places like Minneapolis, Seattle and Denver. Places loaded with suburban Detroit kids. Frey and the Suburbs Alliance started something called the Millennial Mayors Congress. Trying to get mayors to attract young people. Frey is 29.

“What’s encouraging is that all the elected officials who have come and signed on to the Millennial Mayors Congress seem to want to move things forward on a regional basis.”

One of the Mayors is Ron Gillham from Huntington Woods.

“What does it take to keep them here?”

Along with conserving energy and reusing vacant property, Mayor Gillham considers transit vital. He spent 30 years as a General Motors engineer.

“This is to me, not a city by city problem. It’s a regional problem. And if we don’t work together we’re doomed to fail. And we can’t afford to fail.”

His city has talked with the county road commission, and John Hertel’s regional transit coordinating committee.

“I think we’re right in the middle of the whole thing. We’re sort of the epicenter of the area, in where we are in this particular area along Woodward. We can try our best to be leaders. I think that public transit is one of those things whose time has come. It will be painful in some cases.”

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