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Commentary: Good news for Detroit

Whether or not you are from the Detroit area, you may well have wondered about the ongoing issue of the street lights.

There’s been constant discussion about the fact that at least half the lights never come on. This is not a great selling point for a city with a major crime problem.

So, why doesn’t Detroit just replace the lights? How expensive can new bulbs be? Well, it turns out that isn’t the real problem.

A few weeks ago, I talked to Glenda Price, a member of the city’s financial advisory board. She had just had a tour of the lighting department. She told me “the wonder is that any of the lights come on at all.” Some of the equipment is a century old.

Not only is it worn out, there is no way to get spare parts. So technicians jury-rig things, and cannibalize some machinery to keep other parts going.

But there’s only so much they can do. There’s hope now, however. Yesterday, Governor Rick Snyder came to Detroit to sign legislation allowing the city to appoint an authority that will be able to issue bonds, raise money, and fix the lighting system.

That was one of the less controversial results of the legislature’s now-famous lame duck session. Additionally, the governor signed a law making it easier for the Downtown Development Authority to help Mike Ilitch build the new hockey arena and entertainment complex he wants in the city.

The governor, who could have done all this in Lansing, also signed legislation creating a new Regional Transit Authority, something vitally important. If voters in metropolitan Detroit’s counties approve the money, it will run a network of high-speed rapid transit buses throughout the area. The RTA will also be a much-needed vehicle for federal transportation funds.

If they ever do build any light rail along Woodward, this will be the agency that coordinates the federal dollars involved. There was also a bill aimed at helping Detroit’s Eastern Market.

Give the governor credit for this -- he didn’t have to come to Detroit to sign these bills. Nor is he apt to get much out of this trip. He knows he won’t get more than five percent of Detroit’s vote if he runs for reelection.

But he felt this was something he should do. There was, of course, another lame-duck bill he didn’t sign in the city, and which is likely to have a bigger impact on Detroit in the short term. That’s the bill giving emergency managers more power.

Most experts think an emergency manager for Detroit is probably inevitable, possibly followed by bankruptcy.

However, the new law doesn’t take effect till the end of March. It will be interesting to see what happens before that.

Incidentally, all this happened on a day when we learned General Motors plans to buy back much of the government’s remaining share in the company by the end of the year.

Washington will get rid of the rest over the next year or so. Detroit hasn’t had an easy year, or an easy decade.

But yesterday, there were some signs that the city, like the automakers who made her famous, actually may have a future.

Which could just be Michigan’s biggest holiday present of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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