This week’s big story was written by Chad Livengood.
Perhaps the biggest news to come out of this week’s Mackinac Policy Conference is that it has happened.
The Detroit Regional Chamber held its annual Grand Hotel conference amid a global pandemic. The simple act of bringing together around 1,000 influential people in the state after the trauma of the past 18 months was noteworthy. The chamber’s COVID vaccine verification requirement will likely become a model for witnessing future big events in Michigan as we move from managing pandemic crises to managing the endemic risk of a virus that experts say in public health, will be with us for years to come. (But will there be bracelets? Maybe not, speculates our editor-in-chief Kelley Root: “The hugs and handshakes – just a habit, really – mostly won out,” a- she writes this week.)
The context of the pandemic has at times eclipsed political discussions in the ornate theater of the Grand Hotel.
But like previous carefully choreographed gatherings on Mackinac Island, it’s often what goes unrecorded on stage that deserves further discussion in the weeks and months following the event.
Longtime Mackinac conference attendees can’t recall a year when regional leaders in southeast Michigan didn’t talk about fixing the region’s fragmented public transportation system.
This is almost always a major topic of discussion, as it is a set of regional issues that will require regional solutions. And in 30 years, few solutions have emerged.
But it was largely absent from this year’s agenda, which focused on improving public health, post-pandemic work, and promoting racial and economic equity.
Many approaches to advancing racial equity and economic mobility have been discussed on the island, including reparations (in a panel discussion as part of the official conference program and in some Crain podcast conversations as well).
But, as we highlighted in our Crain’s Forum this week, public transit is one of the region’s most pressing equity issues. A report from Detroit Future City found that black commuters in the area spend nearly twice as much of their income on public transportation as white commuters. For blacks in Detroit, that’s 23 cents per dollar earned, compared to 12 cents per dollar for their white neighbors. These workers also pay a high price for time spent in transit to get to jobs that are mostly found in the suburbs.
One of the peculiarities of this year’s unusual Mackinac conference that may explain why public transport was not addressed was the lack of real policy makers in attendance. Oakland County Director Dave Coulter and Macomb County Director Mark Hackel both skipped the conference, for different reasons. There was not a single state lawmaker on the island until the last night of the conference because they were stuck in Lansing voting on the state budget.
The lack of policymakers to discuss vital political issues was so noticeable that the list of things to do after the Detroit chamber conference included ensuring “at the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference a strong representation of bipartisan elected leaders.”
If they can get there next year, maybe the discussion can get back to repairing urban and suburban bus systems.
– Chad livengood