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With new leadership in Oakland County, what’s next for regionalism?

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For the first time in years it seems like there’s hope for greater cooperation in metro Detroit—but that optimism might not be warranted

Aerial shot of Woodward Avenue facing towards New Center Photo by Michelle Gerard

In early August, Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson died, leaving a vacancy at a post he held for 26 years.

The longtime Republican executive was known for, among other things, promoting Oakland County at all costs. He often said that if something was was good for Detroit and other counties, but bad for Oakland County, he would oppose it. He also stymied efforts at regional transit and was criticized for fanning animosity between the suburbs and city with his incendiary language.

Many are hoping that new leadership will increase regional cooperation, which is desperately needed.

“We’ve got a labor market that is regional, but don’t have a transportation system that reflects that geography,” says Robin Boyle, professor emeritus at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University. “We don’t think about the metropolitan area when it comes to two of the most important elements that make up lives: our work and our ability to move around.”

Metro Detroit spends $69 per capita on transit each year. Nearby Cleveland spends $177; Seattle $471.

David Coulter was named the new Oakland County executive this week—it will be the first time in half a century that Democrats will lead the county. Since 2011, Coulter had been the mayor of progressive, LGBTQ-friendly Ferndale. During his tenure, he improved the city’s bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Rising housing prices and an eclectic mix of businesses have helped it become one of the trendiest cities in Oakland County.

But will his leadership be enough to change the culture and political obstacles in the region? At this point, that’s still an open question.

Coulter told WDET this week that his priorities would be largely similar to those of Patterson. He was noncommittal about the specifics of his policy proposals or staff makeup, though he did make positive statements about the importance of regionalism and getting a proposal on the 2020 ballot for an expanded transit system.

In general, Patterson was against policy proposals that resulted in his constituents paying higher taxes. Perhaps a leader more willing to formulate and make the case for a regional transit system would increase the likelihood of its passing.

A black bus with all-caps “FAST” written on the side. Courtesy of SMART

But John Hertel, general manager of SMART, says that contrary to popular opinion, Patterson was “extremely supportive” of proposals to improve SMART. That even included regional upgrades, like adding FAST bus routes between the suburbs and downtown or collaborating with DDOT on the Dart unified payment system.

“Brooks and I didn’t agree on opt-outs,” Hertel says about the ability of communities to forego SMART service and the resulting taxes. “But I can also tell you that he never opposed me going and talking to communities to encourage them to join in.”

Though Curbed Detroit spoke with WSU professor Boyle prior to Coulter’s election, he feels that the region is too fractured for new leadership to make much of a difference. Moreover, the forums don’t exist to engage in the dialogue necessary for change. A working group of CEO’s lead by DTE’s Gerry Anderson is trying to create a business attraction agency that could work for the entire region. But many more such efforts are needed.

Boyle adds that whoever is in charge will ultimately serve their constituents first. Much like Patterson.

“We have a culture in Southeast Michigan that doesn’t look beyond the immediate municipality that you live in,” he says. “That includes Detroit, that includes small communities everywhere from Grosse Pointe and Downriver to northern Oakland County.

“This could be an opportunity to make a change, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”