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Costly comedy

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Fighting between metro Detroit’s leaders is looking more and more like a comedy of errors. Unfortunately for the region, this ain’t no sitcom.

Case in point: Ferndale City Manager Tom Barwin, an energetic, progressive leader who wears a beret and helped Ferndale revitalize and double its property values over the last decade, says Detroit is “out to lunch” when it comes to regional cooperation on mass transit.

“We’re paying for mass transit and we have the right to get it. We’re donating $100 million a year to the federal government that we could be getting back to use for mass transit projects. We are demanding that we move forward and we are getting little to no cooperation,” Barwin says. He’s talking about the 3 cents per gallon of gas that goes to Washington, D.C., to be redistributed nationwide to regional transit authorities. Metro Detroit gets less in return than even San Juan, Puerto Rico, because regional leaders can’t get their act together, Barwin says. “It’s criminal. It’s almost amoral,” he says.

Barwin made his comments while talking last week to 60 or so mass transit enthusiasts attending “The Other Auto Forum” at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (formerly the detroitcontemporary art gallery) on Rosa Parks. The panel discussion coincides with CAID’s ongoing “Other Auto Show” — this year’s version of the Anti-Auto Show, launched traditionally during the Detroit international auto exhibit to examine the city’s love-hate relationship with motor vehicles.

So Barwin is talking to artists and intellectuals who have a hard time figuring out why biking, walking and riding en masse seem like foreign dreams in Detroit. Recent reports that private money will be used to build an experimental, high-tech transit system along Woodward in Ferndale is like “rubbing salt into the wounds” of those aching for transit into Detroit, says one crowd member.

Barwin says Detroit’s lack of action is “bizarre.” He’s formed an association of suburbs that want to join forces with Detroit to fight the sprawl-hungry appetite of Oakland County’s L. Brooks Patterson and his many minions. And Barwin has led a group of activists and the city of Ferndale in a lawsuit against Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) (See MT’s “A Case Against Sprawl,” Aug. 18, 2004). SEMCOG distributes state and federal transit and road money. Barwin’s suit aims to change the power structure on SEMCOG to benefit Detroit and other older communities. Currently, SEMCOG spends money disproportionately to benefit newer communities to the detriment of older ones, he says.

Hogwash, says Detroit City Council President Maryann Mahaffey, a longtime SEMCOG leader. Mahaffey says she looked at reports that showed Barwin’s plan wouldn’t help Detroit. She says Detroit is “hamstrung” by federal regulations that require local governments to pony up matching funds for transit projects. Also, regional cooperation is required. And in this region, that ain’t happenin’.

“We have Brooks Patterson out there who is very open and bold, and he wants what’s good for Oakland County and to hell with Detroit. As long as we have to get Oakland County approval, we’re stymied,” Mahaffey says.

Barwin scoffs at this. “Detroit has 20 percent of the population in Southeast Michigan and 6 percent of the vote on SEMCOG. Maryann has got to get with it,” he says.

So the battles among Detroit’s feudal powers against King Patterson continue in a play more tragic than comedic. Next, Mahaffey chairs a meeting at SEMCOG on March 15 to review “Impediments to Mass Transit.” Maybe someday we’ll get it figured out.

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