Challenging The Automotive Paradigm in Reagan Democrat Country

I found out the other night that there are people in Macomb County who actually refer to the Gratiot FAST bus as the “Heroin Express.” Yea, it were 3am, and I couldn’t sleep. So I delved into a Facebook rabbit hole, as one is wont to do. (I know, I know.) The idea is that drug dealers from the city will come out to the suburbs. Similar to the common right-wing refrain that Mexicans smuggle drugs through illegal border crossings (they don’t, actually), this is, well, how people view public transit in Southeast Michigan and elsewhere, where the automotive paradigm remains king.

According to these same people, Coleman Young singlehandedly invented municipal corruption, and Detroit is responsible for all of the problems of the suburbs. Except when anything good happens in Detroit. Then, we can probably thank a suburbanite. (As an aside: You almost get inured to the insidious racism here. It’s far different from the jarring racism of St. Louis. Hardware store owners would casually drop an N-word here or there. “Well, you’re white, you know what I’m talking about!” they’d say. I mean… I don’t. But.)

Back to the Heroin Express, though. I now really wish my brain could un-learn this information that is taking up valuable space in my memory. I’m relegating this information to the place of other information I wish I could unlearn. Like knowledge of the existence of those electronic drivetrain shifters on bicycles. Or of those fish that eat your skin when you’re getting a pedicure. (That’s… really, slightly disgusting.)

On the flip side, it’s great if Mark Hackel doesn’t believe in public transit and instead would rather his strip mall county go it alone. A ballot measure that lost by a handful of votes in 2016 would surely pass by a landslide in 2020 if Macomb were ejected. The one sad part of this is that neither voters nor the executive are connecting the dots in what it would mean to maintain minimal SMART service without an expanded RTA millage.

Mark Hackel’s county web page describes two of the three goals of county government as delivering services “economically” and “efficiently.” I am not sure that this means that government can be simultaneously “equitable,” an elusive third ‘e’ in a county that fights tooth and nail against public infrastructure spending.

Hackel and others have criticized the RTA millage as double taxation. I’m not sure how people fail to understand that “double taxation” means being taxed twice for the same transaction. In this case, the RTA expansion is an expansion. It’s not a double anything. And, per capita, it still leaves us far behind real cities that have real budgets for transit. Hackel isn’t alone and has some vocal allies– among them Leon Drolet, whom Crain’s recently gave a microphone for God knows what reason.

There are over 800,000 people in Macomb County. That includes nearly 50,000 low-income residents. The cities bordering Detroit account for more than a quarter of the population. This means that, much as Macombers gripe about those dirty poors in Detroit getting a free ride from their hard-earned dollars, they will benefit from increased access to an 8 Mile transit corridor, if nothing else (this is well-documented by research in economic development that demonstrates that transit creates opportunities both along corridors, within the nodes that it is connecting, and within broader regional context). Hey, I ain’t even trippin’. I’d take it. But the “Heroin Express” comment is just proof that we have major arguments to work on that are cultural as well as legislative or economic.

This article is part of a series on The Business Case For Regional Transit as we move into 2020.

An ancient SMART bus in downtown Detroit.

About Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.
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