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A Determined Reformer Stands in Sprawl's Path

Ferndale sues SEMCOG; argues agency hurts Detroit’s core communities

August 26, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Giffen

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments decides how $600 million a year is spent on roads and public transportation, including this interchange connecting Woodward Avenue and 8 Mile Road between Detroit and Ferndale.

Is Paul Tait an out-of-step leader determined to bleed Detroit and its inner suburbs dry and shovel piles of taxpayer cash into the sprawling outer suburbs? Some people think so.

Since 1972, when he was just 25 years old, Mr. Tait has worked for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the seven-county region’s development and planning agency. Today, as SEMCOG’s executive director, he leads a confederation of local governments with a $10.9 million annual budget that each year decides how to spend more than $600 million in federal and state funds on roads, transit, and other regional infrastructure.

Now a pioneering lawsuit, brought by a city that is a member of Mr. Tait’s agency, argues that SEMCOG is hurting Detroit and its closest suburbs by unfairly doling out too much of that money to the wealthy outer suburbs. Leading the charge against the influential agency and its likable director is Tom Barwin, the 50-year-old city manager of Ferndale, a reviving inner-ring suburb of 22,000 folks just across 8 Mile Road from Detroit.

Mr. Tait and Mr. Barwin are a study in contrasts. SEMCOG’s leader climbed the ranks of his government-sponsored organization by knowing which desks needed to be crossed and keeping his head down. Ferndale’s city manager is driven and, by his own account, quite comfortable pushing against convention. Mr. Tait is among a small cadre of officials who approved not only many of the roads that direct commuters to the hinterlands, but also sanctioned the region’s remarkable dearth of public transit. Mr. Barwin is one of many local officials who must live with the consequences of those decisions and believes they have damaged Detroit and its nearest suburbs, including Ferndale. In short, Mr. Tait is a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, while Mr. Barwin gains strength from battling convention.

The two do share one thing: Both are capable and respected government officials. This makes their coming legal battle an almost epic struggle of style and priorities, with Mr. Tait as the cautious intergovernmental facilitator and Mr. Barwin as the fearless reformer bent on remaking a broken system.

‘Bleeding Us Dry’
The lawsuit, filed last year in Wayne County Circuit Court, contends that SEMCOG’s decision-making process for highways and other transportation systems favors the largely white and upwardly mobile outer suburbs and ignores Detroit and its inner suburbs because of the voting structure of the agency’s 51-member executive committee. For example, Detroit, with more than 900,000 people, has just three votes, while Monroe County, with just 150,000 residents, has four votes. The plaintiffs say this is why the suburbs get the cash and the core cities do not.

Mr. Tait and other officials declined through SEMCOG’s communications department to be interviewed for this article, citing the pending suit. Mr. Barwin is not nearly as reticent.

“This lawsuit does not seek to pit one area of the region against another,” he told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “Quite the contrary: That is what we have had for the past 40 years. We simply seek equal voting rights for all citizens in the vital area of taxpayer-funded transportation investments. As we attempt to compete in the global economy, we can’t continue to be so inefficient, so run down, with our transportation system missing fundamental components and which does not provide basic choices for our residents and visitors.”

Mr. Barwin says the inequity in public investment is now so critical that it will either bankrupt more communities or lead to the same sort of massive dislocations in the suburbs that Detroit has already endured, complete with crumbling roads and failing sewer and water systems.

SEMCOG’s own studies make the same point. One recent study found that the region would need $70 billion to maintain its transportation networks until 2030, but has only $40 billion available from current tax funds. An earlier study estimated that meeting the region’s water and sewer needs would cost $52 billion, again with no clear source of complete funding. Yet, Mr. Barwin points out, 40 percent of that estimate is for the construction of new water and sewer lines to facilitate construction in open fields, forests, and wetlands.

“SEMCOG is bleeding us dry,” Barwin says. “We are $30 billion in the red as far as our current transportation infrastructure, and $60 billion if you count water and sewer. That's a $2 billion per year deficit path these guys are leading us down. And they are supposed to be the experts.”

SEMCOG: Once Obscure, Now a Powerful Sprawl Engine
Strife is the last thing SEMCOG’s founders wanted when they launched the agency in 1968. After the previous summer’s rioting in Detroit, the nation’s worst, they rallied local governments to a common purpose by placing their representatives on various SEMCOG committees. For years, SEMCOG was largely anonymous and mostly served as a forum for elected and appointed officials. Even if SEMCOG had possessed its own point of view, it would not have mattered. The agency reviewed proposals for transportation projects but had little authority over them.

That changed in 1991 when Congress gave metropolitan planning organizations like SEMCOG the final say in deciding where state and federal transportation funds are spent within their jurisdictions. The river of cash that began flowing through SEMCOG altered its operation. Today, behind the carefully marketed image of professional competence is a public agency beset with discord: What should Detroit and its sprawling suburbs, which form the nation’s eighth largest metropolitan region, do to better compete with Chicago, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and New York as a place to live, work, and visit? Can the region become the innovative, 21st-century metropolis that Mr. Barwin envisions, or will it finally succumb to the drive-through culture?

Many suburban officials, including Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, insist that Detroit and its inner suburbs can only blame themselves for their condition. Spread-out suburban development is fine with him. “I love sprawl,” the respected Mr. Patterson said last fall. “I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can’t get enough of it.”

On the other side of the issue stand many mayors, city managers, and downtown business executives who assert that improving southeast Michigan depends on redirecting more state and federal tax dollars inward to the region’s older urban areas. They say that quality urban settings generate jobs, wealth, and opportunity. They point to Chicago, which 40 years ago was, like Detroit, in serious trouble. But, unlike Detroit, Chicago reawakened magnificently, thanks to smart decisions about public transit, housing, and job and recreational development.

Mr. Barwin prefers the Chicago model. In seven years as Ferndale’s city manager he has overseen the redevelopment of Ferndale’s downtown from old storefronts into popular new cafes and shops. Housing values have doubled. The city’s school system and population have stabilized. The city spent almost $90 million on streets, housing, businesses, and schools, thanks to Ferndale residents who voted to raise their property taxes.

Build and Abandon
Mr. Barwin grows visibly annoyed when he describes how deeply his neighbors dug into their pockets to save their city while hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars, all approved by SEMCOG, flowed past Ferndale to new highways, sewers, and jobs in the wealthier outer suburbs. For example, SEMCOG influences spending for the Transportation Economic Development Fund, a federal program designed to invest in urban core redevelopment. From 1988 to 2003, almost $400 million was dispensed in Michigan from the fund, much of it in southeast Michigan. According to state records, just 22 percent of the funds were actually spent in downtowns. The bulk went to suburban and exurban development.

Auburn Hills, a white, upscale suburban Oakland County community of 20,000 that is little more than a series of exits ramps on I-75, won big. The city, which didn’t exist until 1983, claimed over $25 million for streetscape improvements, new roads, a bicycle path, and other amenities. That’s $5 million more than Pontiac -- population 66,000  --received; and $2 million more than Detroit, with just under one million people.

“Our region has practiced an ingrained pattern of build and abandon,” Mr. Barwin observed, “a practice which is placing a growing number of once proud and vibrant communities and school districts near collapse.” 

Build and abandon is big business in southeast Michigan. The region’s population increased by just 5 percent, or by about 240,000 people, from 1990 to 2000. But each of those new people consumed a little less than one acre apiece for roads, parking lots, luxury subdivisions, strip malls, and businesses. From 1990 to 2001, 220 new shopping centers and stand-alone stores rose, all but a handful outside of Detroit and its older suburbs. By the end of 2000, 164,000 acres, nearly 90 percent of it farmland, had fallen to new development. That is a rate of land consumption that is three to ten times faster than the region’s population growth, depending on the statistical source. Even SEMCOG’s number crunchers acknowledge that metropolitan Detroit is a national sprawl champion.

It is no wonder that County Executive Patterson, who sits at the top of the region’s alliance of developers, road builders, business executives, realtors, and elected leaders, loves sprawl: From 1969 until 2000 Oakland County and the five neighboring suburban counties added 1.1 million new jobs, a 146 percent increase, while Wayne County, including Detroit, lost 209,000 jobs, a 20 percent loss.

“The next time you hear the word sprawl, embrace it,” Mr. Patterson wrote in a widely-published article last year. “It simply means economic development. It means jobs. It means the freedom to choose. It translates into quality of life.”

The American Dream’s Winners and Losers
But does it? SEMCOG’s pursuit of new highways and its inability or refusal to develop regional rapid transit means that 94 percent of Detroit-area workers commute by car, causing some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. The region’s young adults are abandoning Detroit’s suburbs in droves; no other major U.S. metropolitan area has suffered such a severe brain drain. Business executives in southeast Michigan complain they have trouble recruiting top talent because other metropolitan areas offer better recreation, cultural enrichment, housing choices, urban energy, and public transportation.

As new starter mansions, strip malls, and state-financed roads were built in Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties, the inner ring suburbs and Detroit fought just to stay even. Lacking sufficient SEMCOG-directed money, they taxed themselves to pay for street improvements, school reconstruction, housing, and parks. Detroit’s high taxes were one important reason that it lost 80,000 people in the 1990s.

Sprawl, embraced without question for 50 years in metro Detroit, anoints winners and losers. The winners tend to be white, wealthy, conservative, and desperate to live ever farther from the city in settings that quickly flip from pastoral to paved over. The losers are the more than 2.4 million people who live in Detroit and its inner suburbs, many of them elderly, African American, poor, or jobless. The American Dream, it turns out, only applies for some of us.

On Sunday, part two of this in-depth report will detail the lawsuit that Ferndale and a number of Detroit-area activists brought against SEMCOG.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and two-time winner of the George Polk Award for investigative and national reporting, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at  keith@mlui.org. A version of this two-part article was published  in the August 18, 2004 edition of Detroit’s  Metro Times.

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