Howes & Finley: Regional transit battle reveals rising anxiety over jobs, growth

Daniel Howes Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — A regional divide that appeared to be healing since Detroit's historic bankruptcy is busting wide open over a plan for regional transit, exposing anxiety that the city is prospering at the expense of the suburbs.

The flashpoint, delivered at the Detroit Regional Chamber's policy conference, is a proposed millage to fund expansion of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, a $5.4 billion plan that appears to be cleaving the region on either side of Eight Mile. 

Metro Detroit's 'Big Four' leaders (from left) Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson discuss regional transit during the 'Big Four' event at the Eight Mile Boulevard Association's Annual Leadership Luncheon at Cobo Center in Detroit.

But there's something bigger at work here than squabbling over a regional transit plan. That battle reveals growing suburban resentments over the region's shifting economic fortunes: decades-long capital flow is reversing directions as more jobs and tax revenue flee the 'burbs for a rejuvenated downtown.

In a published interview, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson called Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan a "creep" over transit. Two days ago, Macomb County executive Mark Hackel pronounced the RTA effectively dead, and he's been using the media exposure here at the Grand Hotel to amplify the point. "We're willing to help," he told The Detroit News. "You can't just say, 'give us your money.'" 


Duggan isn't backing down: "I can't explain why Oakland and Macomb are doing what they're doing," he told the Nolan Finley Show on 910 Superstation, but he offered a hint. "Three weeks ago Microsoft brought 400 employees from Southfield into the city of Detroit. And last week, Tata Technologies said they were moving 200 people from Novi and into Detroit. Google is in the process of moving people from Birmingham into the city of Detroit."

Not since legendary Mayor Coleman Young told criminals to "hit Eight Mile" has the relationship between the Metro Detroit region's Big Four leaders turned so nasty. And Patterson isn't even here to inject his customary levity into a complex situation that is increasingly pitting the region's business leadership against suburban politicians. 

It's hard to overstate how jarring such an exodus from the suburbs can be for regional leaders long accustomed to seeing business investment and jobs mostly flowing their way. Billions in private sector investment, spearheaded by Dan Gilbert's Quicken Loans Inc. empire, the Ilitch family and growing enthusiasm among other business leaders to be part of the reinvention, are changing all of that.

It's not likely to abate anytime soon, barring a meaningful economic slowdown. The role swap is startling: Detroit's mayor, a former CEO, has slapped an "Open for Business" sign on the city, even as his counterparts defy the wishes of their own business leaders who say they want the region's politicians to move on transit. The sharp contrast is telling.

To drive the point home, Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah and Gerry Anderson, CEO of DTE Energy Co., used a Wednesday news conference on the porch of the Grand Hotel to announce the Employers for Transit Coalition. It represents 170 businesses, health systems and 50 nonprofits totaling 270,000 employees.

"The situation needs to be addressed," Anderson said, "and we stand behind transit. What's the mindset of the business leaders? They are really fatigued by this zero-sum mindset, I mean really fatigued.We simply don't have a transit system that works."

But in the minds of the suburban political leaders, what's developing is a largely zero-sum game in a region without overall population and job growth. Too often, Detroit's gain is the suburbs' loss, and leaders like Hackel say they're obliged to act in the interests of their constituents.

"We're starting to push back," he said, adding that suburban communities are tired of subsidizing with their tax dollars Detroit's prosperity and institutional restructuring at the expense of their own. 

Oakland's Patterson has complained about Gilbert trolling Oakland County office buildings for office workers to fill his expanding space. And with Gilbert poised to spend another $2.1 billion on four projects downtown -- buoyed by $618 million in publicly backed incentives -- those concerns are only likely to grow.

In a slow-growth market, where are residents and employees to fill Gilbert's new projects most likely to be found? If the past is prologue, suburban counties would top the list. The mayor, for his part, denies allegations of poaching.

"I never actively initiated any conversation with any company to come down here," the mayor told The News. "Microsoft, Tata, Google -- they all contacted us. We're not knocking on doors in the suburbs saying, 'Come to us.'"

Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledges the rising animosity: "The RTA is a frustration," he told The News. "We do need a long-term solution for the region. It's quite fractured. It doesn't represent the region well" -- or make it particularly attractive to outside investors intrigued by Detroit's well-documented story of reinvention.

And then there's the race factor, an allegation that infuriates Hackel, who has called out Wayne County Executive Warren Evans for leveling the charge. Still, Evans repeated it from the stage of the policy conference.

"Race is an issue on transit," Evans said. But "the old Eight Mile adage is no more. We're all one region."

The palpable tension is a step back for the kind of regional cooperation that helped speed the city's historic bankruptcy and helped transform Cobo Center under a new regional authority. So did formation of the regional Great Lakes Water Authority as the city emerged from its Chapter 9 case, courtesy of a federal judge who effectively forced the deal on the suburbs.

In retrospect, those fixes look comparatively easy -- workouts precipitated by the city's deteriorating finances, its bankruptcy or both. But if the region cannot be more successful attracting investment from outside the region -- think missed opportunities for Inc.'s second North American headquarters or so far empty efforts to land Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group -- Detroit's improving business case is likely to draw more jobs from just up the road.

"For 50 years, jobs went from Detroit to the suburbs and nobody talked about cannibalization" of employment, Duggan said. "There' something offensive about when they go to Detroit, it gets a negative connotation.

"When we're competing in to land these facilities, you want to give them options in the city and good options in the suburbs. That's how you compete. A gain for the city or a gain for the suburbs is a gain for everybody."