Two years ago, southeast Michigan voted down what I think may have been the region’s best chance at a sensible and affordable regional transit service.
Had the ballot proposal passed, a network of special rapid buses with their own lanes would have been built throughout the four-county area of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw. People without cars would have been able to easily get to and from Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
I thought it would pass, even though the campaign to promote it seemed less than inspired. It did pass overwhelmingly in Washtenaw County. Wayne also voted yes, though by a narrower margin than expected. But the proposal failed by a thousand votes in Oakland, and was obliterated in Macomb County. Overall, it lost by barely one percent.
The next day, I heard students at Macomb Community College being interviewed about this. One said he’d voted against it because “they would use it to come up here from Detroit and sell meth.” The meth, I could have told him, was far more likely to be made in northern Macomb County, but he wouldn’t have listened, or cared.
What mattered is that he assumed the worst about them. Your ears didn’t have to be very acute to hear what a friend of mine calls “the silent dog whistle of racism.”
But what I didn’t fully understand was how all-pervasive racism still is when it came to this issue. I got a pretty definitive answer two nights ago, when I moderated one of Michigan Radio’s Issues and Ale forums in Pontiac. The subject was regional transportation.
Those running the authority hope to put a smaller, scaled-down proposal on the ballot this year. I’m not especially optimistic about their chances. I don’t think that they’ve done a very good job explaining what the citizens would get out of this. Meanwhile, there’s a bill in the legislature that would allow communities that don’t want to participate to opt out of the system.
That would likely doom any transit plan to failure. The sponsor, State Representative Jeff Yaroch of rural Richmond, said his residents would seldom use it and so shouldn’t have to pay for it. Apparently, the idea of the greater good for society is foreign to him.
I do not have any biological children, but I’ve never thought that I shouldn’t pay taxes to support the schools. One of the panelists kept endlessly repeating that he could spend his own money better than any government could, to the point where I wanted to ask if he wanted to be exempt from sewer taxes and construct an outhouse instead.
One man said he thought we should give people vouchers for Uber and Lyft instead of using buses, something that struck me as bizarre. Later, however, I got it, after I listened to him talking with his friends. They were never going to get on any bus, because those people left them dirty and dangerous. One man referred to one bus that goes to Detroit as the “heroin express.”
Well, you don’t need a dog whistle decoder to hear that. We are one vast community, divided by race. We can overcome that, or let it destroy our future.
It’s up to all of us, and if I said I was very optimistic, I’d be lying
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.