Suburban Segregationist Brooks Patterson Breaks Up Detroit’s Hard-Won Transit Coalition

Representing the region's primarily white northern suburbs, Patterson is blocking a transit measure that would improve job access for black Detroiters.

The red dots represent white residents and the blue dots represent black residents in this map of metro Detroit. It's easy to see Eight Mile Road, the dividing line between Wayne County, which includes Detroit, and suburban Oakland and Macomb counties to the north. Map: Eric Fischer
The red dots represent white residents and the blue dots represent black residents in this map of metro Detroit. It's easy to see Eight Mile Road, the dividing line between Wayne County, which includes Detroit, and suburban Oakland and Macomb counties to the north. Map: Eric Fischer

For 40 years, Detroit has struggled to muster the political support to build a coherent regional transit system.

The region came within an inch of finally doing it in 2016, when voters turned down a four-county ballot measure by just 1 percent. A terrible performance in working-class white Macomb County — a Trump stronghold just northeast of the city — helped doom the measure.

The desire by white suburbanites to maintain geographic segregation has always held back attempts to improve regional transit. While the 2016 ballot measure seemed to signal that the suburbs had turned a corner, polarization is back. Brooks Patterson, the executive of Oakland County, an affluent, largely white suburban area northwest of Detroit, recently said he would not agree to a second go at the ballot.

Patterson got a standing ovation when he broke the news at his annual state of the county speech, saying he doesn’t want the suburbs that “opt out” to have to pay for transit.

One of 40 towns within Oakland County that “opted out” of the suburban transit system is Rochester. It gained some infamy a few years ago when they story of James Robertson went viral. Robertson, a Detroit resident, walked 21 miles round trip daily and took multiple bus routes to get to his factory job in Rochester.

Patterson has made a career trading in dog whistles disparaging Detroiters, and in his speech he implied they’re out to get things they don’t deserve from the hard-working folks of Oakland County:

I will not betray [the opt-out suburbs] and slip some, or all of them, against their will, into a tax machine from which they can expect little or no return on their investment.

Patterson was never a big supporter of regional transit, but he did go along with the 2016 ballot measure. Now, without his cooperation, Oakland County and its nearly 700,000 jobs won’t be part of a future ballot measure. That means Detroit’s transit system won’t be truly regional, and city residents will remain shut off from economic opportunity.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan responded to Patterson’s speech with disappointment. “Some day, Southeastern Michigan will join the rest of America in recognizing the critical importance of regional transit,” he said on Twitter.

Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, says it’s not clear how Detroit will proceed, but it’s possible the regional transit system could continue with just Wayne and Washtenaw counties. Both approved the ballot measure by big margins. Wayne includes Detroit, and Washtenaw includes Ann Arbor.

Better transit connections between those two counties could give Detroit’s population — who are overwhelmingly forced to commute to the suburbs — access to Ann Arbor’s growing tech sector, and the airport as well.

“It’s an outrage that [Patterson has] blocked major transit progress for 40 years,” said Owens. “It’s another example of outdated, parochial thinking that fails to recognize the requirements of a successful modern metro region. Time to stop letting a 79-year old white man who relies on a personal driver dictate public transit for 4 million diverse people!”

If Wayne and Washtenaw counties proceed on their own, Owens thinks it’s possible that Oakland and Macomb counties would feel left out and choose to join a few years later. In some regards, Oakland County itself seems to be breaking with Patterson’s old-school ways: 46 percent of county voters supported the transit measure in 2016.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Time to stop letting a 79-year old white man who relies on a personal driver dictate public transit for 4 million diverse people!”

    FYI Donald Trump is 71. Andrew Cuomo is 60. And Bill DeBlasio is 56.

  • The jobs will shift to where the transit is, so this is realistically a detriment to Oakland County in the long run. The important part is just to make sure that people don’t get displaced to there from the rest of the region as it accelerates away from them.

  • Scott Voolker

    I am a big proponent of transit, but if you would consider a statement that begins with “time to stop letting a 79-year old black man” to be inappropriate, then do not applaud a statement that swaps out black for white either.

  • Guy Ross

    It is making a generalization which harms no one and is accurate. Old white men set transportation policy – this is not debatable. If the issue was sexual assault within the RAP music industry, I don’t think anyone would take issue with ‘stop letting a 50 year old black man……’

    Add to this the fact that white men are the most powerful demographic in the U.S…..

  • Larry Littlefield

    The context is people who have long opposed, or avoided, public transit because if the sort of people presumably ride it.

    Even if they are only riding it to work.

    Suburban, white and that generation, all together, match those with that attitude. Remove any one of the above and expectation would be different and, perhaps, the policy.

    Or perhaps, based not opposition of Black suburban politicians of that age to a subway extension to Southeast Queens back in the 1980s and 1990s, two of the three have to different.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    Old white men haven’t set transportation policy in Detroit for 50+ years. One of Detroit’s highest-profile transit legacies is the People Mover from the 1980s, which goes in one direction across an elevated loop around downtown Detroit.

    “We cannot be successful as a political movement if we offend the 69% of the electorate that is white.”

    Very true. Unless, of course, the Dems think it’s perfectly okay to be a race-based party, which in turn, will make the flabby, boneheaded Republicans a race-based party. Not a very good scene.

  • swtmix

    “Time to stop letting a 79-year old white man who relies on a personal driver dictate public transit for 4 million diverse people!”

    As a white male resident of the Metro Detroit region I totally agree with that statement. L Brooks Patterson has always been an impediment to the Metro Detroit region.

  • CX

    The point is old white men not only don’t represent the population of Metro Detroit but also have been less willing to incorporate the views of women, black people, and everyone else in order to find solutions that benefit . This isn’t offensive.

  • Yet another article on regional transit in Southeast Michigan that failed to gather all of the facts:

    Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson has put a regional transit plan on the table which, if voters approve, would provide $1.2 billion from Oakland County voters alone over 20 years toward regional transit. That substantial sum will come from Oakland County communities that have consistently voted to opt-in to fund public transit. Oakland County taxpayers have already paid most of the SMART bus counties in Southeast Michigan toward that existing regional transit system. Oakland County has paid $352 million into SMART. That’s $37 million more than Macomb County and $107 million more than Wayne County. Detroit pays nothing yet still receives services from SMART.

    Patterson’s proposal offers a better chance of an updated regional transit plan passing the next time around because it honors the results of the first RTA vote that took place only 14 months ago. Though Oakland County voters narrowly defeated the 2016 RTA ballot question, a precinct-level map of the voting tells a more complete story. Most of the “yes” votes for the RTA were concentrated in southeast Oakland County which coincides with the location of the SMART bus opt-in communities. The ballot measure was handily defeated in the 38 opt-out communities and in one major opt-in community – Troy, which is Oakland County’s largest city.

    Finally, here’s Patterson’s transit record: He supported the creation of Act 196 Authority to raise funds to support SMART services. He worked with the Oakland County Board of Commissioners to get the Oakland County Public Transportation Authority millage on the ballot in 1996 and has supported every millage renewal since. He backed the creation of the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority
    (DARTA) in 2001 which was vetoed by Gov. John Engler. Three years later, he joined the regional leaders in an attempt to revive DARTA. The transit unions stopped it with a lawsuit. Gov. Jennifer Granholm reneged on a promise to fix it. Then, he helped form the Regional Transit Authority ultimately enabling an RTA ballot question in 2016. Of course, voters said “No.” Now, as mentioned above, he has proposed a plan that offers $1.2 billion from Oakland County’s opt-in communities.

    Seems the facts get in the way of your “good” story.

  • Daniel

    it leaves transit activism open to what’s plagued transit in LA: astroturfing

    Eric Mann and his nakedly-racist backers are lilywhite and want to keep the Westside and Beverly Hills that way, and it’s earned him a Bimmer

    but you wouldn’t know it from the BRU’s protesters and rhetoric

  • Guy Ross

    I know nothing about the Detroit metro regarding local transportation decisions. However, I would point out that in all population centers, federal transportation policy, funding and the catch all ‘urban renewal’ had more of an effect on transportation than any local decision-making body. Add to this fact that Detroit was very much controlled by old white men in the form of the Big 3 for the past 80 years….

  • Sean

    Much easier to smear someone with the preposterous title of “segregationist” because she disagrees with him.

  • Brandon

    Detroit does not receive services from SMART. the system can drive through the city to a downtown stop/transfer. But SMART is a suburban system. The county with the highest suburban population and area should pay the most. Residents of Detroit need direct service to suburban employment area such as Novi, and any proposal that lets these communities opt out should not be considered regional transit.

    Paterson supports SMART because its a suburban system that doesn’t integrate with the city of Detroit. He likes the ability to opt out and that it avoids real regional transit.


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