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A panel discussion between local government leaders about regional transportation, insurance rates and roads got heated Friday when the topic turned to alleged racial division in southeast Michigan.

The 8 Mile Business Association’s Leadership Luncheon at Cobo Center featured a debate between Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

The bulk of the discussion focused on regional transportation, with Duggan and Evans supporting an expanded plan Evans unveiled at last month’s Regional Transit Authority board meeting, while Hackel and Patterson said they rejected it.

Friday’s discussion became heated at times, particularly when moderator Ron Fournier, president of the Lansing-based Truscott Rossman public relations and lobbying firm, asked whether the transit plan was being rejected in Oakland and Macomb counties because of racial animosity.

“That’s the elephant in the room,” Evans said. “People may be concerned about returning to areas they’re not comfortable with.”

When Fournier asked Hackel whether race had anything to do with him rejecting Evans’ plan, Hackel said he took exception to the question.

Hackel pointed out that he and Macomb County voters support Frequent, Affordable Safe Transit, a regional bus service operated by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, with service on Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan Avenue.

“When someone says we’re not trying to solve problems, that’s disingenuous,” Hackel said. “If you want to create that (racial) divide, I can’t stop you from doing it.”

Fournier replied: “It’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer: Do you think racial division is contributing to (the rejection of Evans’ plan)?”

Hackel shot back: “I’m trying to answer your question. There’s a big difference between supporting regional transportation and supporting this plan. We support many regional efforts, including SMART and the Detroit Zoo.

“You want to create this idea that there’s a racial division, and I will not allow you to continue that conversation,” Hackel said.

Last month, Evans laid out a 20-year proposal in which voters would be asked to approve a $5.4 billion tax. The plan calls for a 1.5-mill tax to provide $170 million per year in operating funding while investing $696 million for infrastructure. The tax would cost owners of the average house worth $157,504 in the region $118 a year.

Evans’ plan would replace the $4.6 billion millage that was voted down 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent in 2016 as Macomb County overwhelmingly rejected it. Washtenaw and Wayne counties favored the millage, while Oakland County voters were evenly split.

Earlier in the discussion, Patterson explained why he didn’t support Evans’ plan.

“We had 20-some communities opt out of (the SMART system in the 1990s),” Patterson said. “They don’t want to be taxed. Warren Evans is trying to bring them in against their will.”

Duggan replied: “That position is absurd,” adding that the 158 communities that would be affected by Evans’ plan should join together.

When Fournier asked about people in remote communities who may not get regular bus service under Evans’ plan, Duggan said smaller bus routes could be part of the system to transport seniors and other residents of those communities.

“Transit isn’t all big buses,” Duggan said. “All we want is a chance for people to vote on this.”

Evans added: “This was our plan for a year. Thousands of hours of work was put into it. I don’t want everyone to think I went into the basement and came up with a plan. It needs to be tweaked maybe.

“But I keep hearing about a Hobson’s choice: Either fix the roads or have the RTA,” Evans said. “We’ve got to do both — it’s not one or the other. If I never get on (a bus) in my life, I understand that this is beneficial to the region as a whole. Let the people vote. They see the problem we’re facing right now.”

Hackel insisted he’s carrying out the will of his constituents by rejecting Evans’ plan.

“Not one community in Macomb County opts out of SMART,” he said. “The problem is, the voters don’t support the plan. Our voters overwhelmingly voted down the (failed 2016 millage proposal). Macomb County voters are continually saying ‘fix our roads first.’ I hear that every day. I don’t hear ‘fix our regional transit.’ Should I ignore the will of the people?”

Fournier asked a written question submitted by an audience member who asked how Evans and Duggan can work with Hackel and Patterson “after they figuratively stabbed you in the back (by rejecting Evans’ plan)?”

Evans replied: “The region needs to come together. I do think we need to fix the roads, but I’m adept enough to do two things at once.”

Another question submitted by an audience member was: “Why are Michigan’s auto insurance rates the highest in the United States?”

Duggan said, “It’s an absurd system, this no-fault system. You have L.A. Insurance, which sells seven-day policies, where people get them (in order to renew their license plates), and then don’t renew them.

“You didn’t see them in the suburbs before, but I nearly drove off the road recently when I was in Roseville, and I saw they now have seven-day insurance policies,” Duggan said. “This isn’t just a Detroit issue; people everywhere don’t want to pay the high rates.”

Evans added: “In Detroit, if you drive without insurance, and you get stopped by the police, you’ll just get another ticket, which you’ll throw in the glove box with the 30 other tickets you got.

“But once you cross Eight Mile, if the police stop you and you don’t have insurance, you’re going to jail. I can’t tell you how many people drive to work with their hearts in their throats, worried they might go to jail. How must that stress level affect people on a daily basis?”

GHunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

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