Brooks Patterson’s comments on regional transit put the nails in the coffin for 2018

Some things just refuse to die. Like the longstanding divide between city and suburbs that has for so long characterized Detroit, and which L. Brooks Patterson just redefined in stark clarity.

In his State of the County remarks this week, Patterson, the Oakland County executive, said he couldn’t support a new regional transit plan that would levy a tax in nine communities in his county that currently opt out of SMART bus service.

“I will not force them against their will into a machine from which they can expect little or no return on their investment. They’re asking me, betray my constituents. Violate my oath of office. And overnight become a regional taxing icon. I can’t do it. I won’t do it,” he said to a standing ovation. “And I will never, ever.”

Recall that the Regional Transit Authority proposal lost by around 18,000 votes in 2016, and by just 1 percent of the vote in Oakland County. As we discussed in a recent Daily Detroit Happy Hour podcast, RTA officials have been working with Patterson and other regional leaders on a revised plan that might pass muster with voters in November. Patterson has been lukewarm throughout the discussions.

Patterson is a classic bean counter obsessed with figures. He argues stridently that Oakland County taxpayers have ponied up millions more than the other two counties over the years to support bus service. That’s rich coming from Brooks, who scarcely passes up an opportunity to crow about Oakland County’s prosperity compared with its neighbors and the thriving, far-flung clusters of office parks and technical centers in places like Auburn Hills and Novi that help boost its tax base.

He’s also obsessed with narrowing the focus on any topic strictly to his own purview. In Patterson’s world, there is no regionalism, per se. No rising tides that lift all boats. His is a zero-sum-gain outlook: Oakland County and everybody else.

It apparently — and weirdly, given his obsession with business attraction — didn’t faze Patterson that Amazon cited metro Detroit’s lack of progress on a regional transit plan as a one of the main reason it left us off the list of the 20 finalists for its HQ2 headquarters project. But remember, this is a guy who lives deep in the car-dependent Oakland County hinterlands, who says he loves sprawl and has a long track record of barely disguised contempt for Detroit.

(I’d love to ask him what he makes of Detroit as a rising destination not only for upwardly mobile, college-educated kids from Oakland County, but also for companies that in previous years would no doubt have chosen to locate north of 8 Mile. Part of me imagines he’s seething at these trends, and maybe getting nervous.)

Not long ago, Patterson, who’s now 79 and may be in his last term as county exec, seemed to be softening into his latter years. He referred to himself one of few remaining moderate Republicans and often decried the extremism of what he called the “Taliban wing” of his own party.

But the man who cut his teeth as a lawyer opposing integrated busing in the 1970s has calcified politically in recent years. He has chosen a wholly fruitless and costly, decade-long widening of I-75 as perhaps his final, lasting legacy on infrastructure. And who can forget his comments a few years ago in a New Yorker profile in which he compared Detroit to an Indian reservation and joked about throwing in “the blankets and corn.”

Patterson’s comments prove that truly regional public transit is a pipe dream in Detroit at least as long as he’s in office. And that the tide of history is quickly passing him by.

Creative Commons photo via Michigan Municipal League

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