L.Brooks Patterson proved worthy of a long written piece of journalism when the New Yorker Magazine published an article on him this year. Years of training from University of Detroit High School to his decades as Oakland County prosecutor, “Brooksie” as friends call him, mows down journalists and other foes in politics.
This year at the Mackinac Policy Conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber, Patterson’s staff wheeled him to meals, the main stage of the conference and to the porch of the Grand Hotel where Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus spoke with him. He was in a car crash in August, 2012. He no longer walks or stands much. But his mind remains sharp.
McCarus: What’s your stance on what’s going on with the RTA? You have new board members. You moved some around. I hear the lady that you put on the RTA doesn’t know anything about transit at all.”
Patterson: We have been fighting at this transit thing since the days Archer was mayor. We have signed off on every program that has been offered. We’ve signed off on this one…saying ‘look we want regional transit.’ If you know it’s had a checkered past with Engler vetoing part of it then Granholm. I think we got a plan now if we get it funded we will be in business.
I don’t know of the lady you who are talking about who’s on the RTA board…
McCarus: Oakland County gets two. Oakland gets to name two members. She is 85 years old. That’ not necessarily a handicap but she supposedly doesn’t know anything about transit.
(McCarus and Patterson both failed to recall her name is Jean Chamberlain, former executive director of the Royal Oak Chamber of Commerce and former chair of the Woodward Dream Cruise. The Dream Cruise is driven by older men who up grew loving cars and the culture that crushed mass transit. They are the opposite of people in their ‘20’s and ‘30’s who leave suburban Detroit for American cities that have better transit.)
Patterson: I think I know who you’re talking about. She couldn’t serve because she works for me in other capacities and by the rules you can’t have a quote employee on your board. So we’re looking around for somebody. These boards are volunteer. They take up a ton of time. The line isn’t very long where somebody who wants to serve on these boards can make a significant contribution. But we’ll find somebody.
McCarus: A lot of the young kids that leave Oakland County leave because it’s boring. They don’t see themselves at 25 driving cars around and imagining that they’re going to buy a mansion in the suburbs. They want to be in cool places and if they had real transit they would feel like that’s a cool enough place and you’d retain your people, your tax base and you’d grow your economy. Why don’t you do that?
Patterson: I’ve heard that argument many many times. I don’t necessarily disagree with it. I remember Jennifer Granholm trying to start that program called Cool Cities and it collapsed of its own weight. I don’t know that you can tempt kids to want to live in Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids or Saginaw. We’re up against some really cool cities, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Denver and once we get our act together and we start rebuilding the fortunes of Detroit we might be able to compete. Because you’re right. Kids have an attraction with urban living. Oakland County doesn’t have a big city like San Francisco, Denver or Boston. We try to make it cool just at the local level with the Royal Oaks the Birminghams. They are pretty cool communities. We are doing all right holding our own. The new medical school that we were very active in supporting at Oakland University, William Beaumont School of Medicine, is bringing in kids from all around the country. And the surveys show that 80% will stay within 100 miles. So we’re reversing some of the brain drain through programs like the medical school.
McCarus: But you’re really not buying what I’m saying, the thrust of what I’m saying you are not going to agree with that.
Patterson: Maybe I’m being obtuse. What’s the thrust of what you’re saying?
McCarus: The thrust is that you’re shooting yourself and your county in the foot by thwarting transit or at least not supporting it enough which would bring, attract and retain young talented people who will grow your economy.
Patterson: Ok I’m going to turn it on you. You’re not listening as opposed to I’m not participating in this conversation. I said I’ve signed on to every RTA since Archer. I’ve signed onto three or four, one that was overturned by the union in the courts and for different reasons Oakland County supported a regional transit authority. I have been there 21 years. I’ve signed at least 3 regional transit authority agreements. It’s not that I’m trying to block it or doing in someway passive aggression. We’re there. But I don’t have, in Oakland County, a major city where all these cool arguments apply. I’m not San Francisco. I’m not Chicago.
McCarus: But you have up and down Woodward. Even republican Birmingham wants it. They want a full blown train.
Patterson: I wanted a train under my tree when I was five. A full blown train is not necessarily going to be cost effective. We had a full blown train. It’s a gazillion dollar investment. We had a full blow train. Let me give you a little history lesson here. It’s called the Grand Trunk. Grand Trunk started in Pontiac. The train was named the Silver Streak. It went down to Norm’s Eaton Station in Birmingham which is now a restaurant. It went down to Royal Oak which is a station that actually has the Amtrak coming in. It went to Pole town and ultimately to work today would be the Renaissance Center.
I know this line because my corporation counsel rode it to law school everyday and rode it back. In the mid ‘80’s the Grand Trunk railway which maintained and operated the Silver Streak said ridership has fallen below 500. I understand that. The City of Detroit had a much greater density in the ‘80’s than it does today. And they said yeah we need a public subsidy. We said we’re not going to subsidize a train. So Grand Trunk said “we’re out of business.”
So fast forward 30 years, trains are cool as somehow part of the urban experience. Grand Trunk sold the line to CNN. So we got to go back and re-condemn the property and create a whole new line now that the density of the city is less and jobs aren’t as plentiful. I think if you don’t know the history you’re destined to make the whole mistake all over again.