Finley: Opposition to RTA isn’t rooted in racism

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

What possible reason other than racism could any suburban community have for not supporting the $5.4 billion Regional Transit Authority plan for an expanded bus system in Metro Detroit?

That’s a question that has confounded many of our Detroit leaders and supporters of expanded public transportation. They’re so convinced suburban opponents are singularly motivated by keeping Detroiters out of their communities that they won’t consider other reasons for skepticism about the RTA, and ignore evidence to suggest that answer is way too simplistic.

The question came up last week at a meeting of the Eight Mile Boulevard Association, which featured a debate between the region’s Big Four leaders — Brooks Patterson from Oakland County, Mark Hackel from Macomb County, Warren Evans from Wayne County and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Asked if race was the driving factor behind why Oakland and Macomb aren’t willing to place the RTA tax proposal on the fall ballot, Evans replied it was “the elephant in the room.”

Defaulting to racism ignores that both Oakland and Macomb voters routinely approve renewals of the SMART bus millage, and just a few years ago voted to double the levy.

They did so despite the reality that 90 percent of suburbanites never get on a bus. But they recognize the importance of the bus system to bringing workers and shoppers into their communities. And while some communities opt out of SMART because their residents don’t use the services, the majority have remained in.

One reason the SMART support may not extend to the RTA is that the authority has done a poor job of making a case for why a second bus system is needed, when residents are already paying for one bus system they don’t use.

I’m convinced that had the politicians who put together the RTA had the courage to dissolve the three current bus systems serving the region — SMART and the Detroit and Ann Arbor systems — and replaced them with one transportation authority, voters, including those in the suburbs, would have approved the plan and the higher tax that came with it.

It also may be that Hackel is right: In a region with such abysmal roads — roads voters actually use every day — it’s harder to make the case that more buses are the highest priority.

There is also little sense of urgency around the issue of mass transit. It’s still cheap and easy to commute by automobile. Gasoline prices are moderate; there are parking places next to most workplaces in the region, and congestion on the roadways is not so unbearable as to coax commuters out of their cars.

Those may not be good reasons to oppose the RTA in the eyes of its supporters. But they are defensible reasons. And they have nothing to do with racism.

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