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Detroit Metro Area May Finally Get Better Transit

12:57 PM EDT on August 22, 2019

The highlight of metro Detroit’s $4.6 billion transit plan was four bus rapid transit routes connecting the city to suburban job centers. Map: Michigan RTA. Click to enlarge.

The death of a high-profile transit foe may finally free the Detroit metro area to establish a regional bus system — which could help break down the racial segregation that for decades has undermined social and economic progress in the region.

L. Brooks Patterson, the long-time executive of Oakland County, died earlier this month of colon cancer.

Patterson, a proponent of suburban sprawl, for years stymied efforts to levy funds for a bus system, preventing a new referendum after a ballot measure seeking $4.6 billion failed by only 1 percent in 2016.

A divisive politician, Patterson trafficked in segregationist dog whistles as he sought to keep majority-black Detroit separate from the wealthy, majority-white northern suburbs.

"The only thing holding this back for the past few years was Brooks," said Kevin McCoy, a transportation expert based in the region. "The region needs regional transit investment — big time."

It now has a proponent of such investment.

Patterson's replacement, Dave Coulter, the first Democrat to lead Oakland County in 27 years, told Detroit's NPR station this week that he would support a ballot measure next year in order to expand transit across the four-county metro region.

The Detroit metro area has struggled for decades to establish a seamless regional transit system serving both its city and suburbs — leaving city residents without a car at an enormous disadvantage in seeking employment in the suburbs. Detroit's suburbs operate a separate transit system from the city, SMART, creating all kinds of headaches for riders.

During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation prevailed on regional leaders to establish a united regional system, and local advocates were able to win state approval to build a four-county transit authority with taxing power. But funding was missing — until now.

“There are people that would like to get another ballot proposal on the ballot next year and that strikes me as a reasonable goal to try and shoot for,” Coulter said in an interview with NPR this week.

Republicans have said they will seek to challenge his appointment.

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