On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation, a conversation with Robert Davis, who retired from MDOT in 2021 after working across three administrations as a senior adviser and community engagement leader on large projects in Metro Detroit.
Sharing his passion for public service, Davis talks about his work as a senior adviser and cabinet member for former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and his work at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) from 2007 until 2021.
Davis, who also worked for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and the administration of former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, talks about his years working with residents and community leaders to address concerns as various projects took shape.
Reflecting on what transportation planners have learned over the years, he talks about the coming transformation of the I-375 corridor in Detroit and how projects that displaced minority residents and supplanted Black neighborhoods are viewed differently now. As discussed on a previous podcast, while discussions about restoring the I-375 corridor to an urban boulevard date back several years, the conversation has added resonance because U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has put an emphasis on connectivity and rethinking freeways.
Buttigieg emphasizes the importance of making sure "a community’s voice and input is baked into a project."
Podcast photo: Robert Davis, retired MDOT employee.
Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.
Cranson: Once again, I’m pleased to have today Robert Davis, who was a veteran MDOT community engagement specialist. Did a lot of outreach, especially on some of the big projects. And before that, he worked in the administration of Governor Jennifer Granholm as a senior advisor working on myriad issues, offering his perspective on a lot of big things, and is kind of a special guest on this Black History Month episode. I thought it would be good to just touch on this, and talk a little bit about the history, the present, and the future. So, Robert, thank you for taking time to do this.
Robert Davis: Thank you, Jeff, for having me.
Cranson: So, let's talk first about before you even got into transportation, what your work was with the Granholm administration, and what your background was, and experience that you brought to bear there.
Davis: Yeah, even go back further than that, Jeff. I started out, I was working on a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Detroit Mercy. And Woodrow Wilson, the founder of Public Administration President at the time, talked about the importance of public service. And in college, I actually caught the wave of something that I would want to do is serve the public as opposed to going to the private sector. So, I started out at SEMCOG, Southeast Michigan Council of Government. I worked there for about 11 years, and then I moved over into the mayor's office of the city of Detroit, Mayor Dennis Archer. I worked in his administration for four years as a public servant there. And then I went on to the McNamara administration at Wayne county government before I joined Jennifer Granholm—there I met Jennifer Granholm, in the McNamara administration working for Wayne county. And then when she became governor, she invited me to serve on her cabinet as a cabinet official, as well as the director of the governor's office for southeast Michigan. And that's where things really got interesting because she gave a sort of free reign for southeast Michigan, which included seven counties in southeast Michigan: Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston, Washtenaw, and Saint Clair counties. I mean, it was just really an opportunity of a lifetime, particularly as a black man from Detroit, born and raised here in the city of Detroit. I mean, I always counted it as a privilege to serve my community and to give back and to do—and no better place in public service to do that than with the state of Michigan. So it was really an honor and a privilege of mine to serve in that capacity.
Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. So talk about some of the most challenging things, or perhaps the most challenging thing that you worked on during that period.
Davis: [laughing] Oh, there’s a lot. Everything, you know, I was very fortunate to have huge portions on my plate. And most things that I got involved in—the simplest thing for me, and I'll use this as an example, Jeff. When I was in the mayor's office in the city of Detroit, I reported to the Deputy Mayor, Freman Hendrix, at the time. And I was an executive assistant to the mayor. And I got this phone call, this frantic phone call, from this woman who was 78 years old, and she was trapped in her house because no one had shoveled snow. She lived on a block with only three houses, and she called the mayor's office and she said, “I don't know who else to call because I’ve called five departments, and I’m getting run around, and I have a doctor's appointment”. And so I started walking out of the office, and the mayor looked at me and he said, “Where are you going?”. And I’m in a three-piece suit, at that time I had a three-piece nice brown suit on, and I had a shovel in my car, and I said, “I’m going to shovel this lady out of her driveway”. And he looked at me like, what? Well, I said, “I'm not going to send her to another department. She called the mayor’s office, the switchboard knew if they got that call to me, I'm going to do something”. I mean, they just knew Robert was going to jump into action. The mayor didn't think I was going to go out there and shovel her snow, but I literally showed up on her porch, shoveled her snow, and I think that was probably the greatest example for me of a public servant, and because she really was in need—her husband had just died, she couldn't get out, she was frantic, she was afraid. And so I think that was probably the most meaningful of all, and I’ve done so many things, I mean, I’ve been fortunate to work on the Lodge Freeway with Mayor Brenda Lawrence when she was mayor of Southfield. Connecting that to the city of Detroit with Mayor Kilpatrick. And so that was like an 80-million-dollar project, but it really got communities engaged and involved, and that's sort of the thing that I've always been, you know, that was my forte is to keep elected officials. And having worked at SEMCOG, because it was an organization of elected officials, having elected officials engaged with public was really my forte. And so I started off, that was the first big project at MDOT was the Lodge Freeway.
Cranson: That was a complete rebuild of the Lodge, right?
Davis: It was complete rebuild, 80 million dollar complete rebuild. And so, Brenda Peake at the time and Rob Morosi were our two-communication liaisons. And they, it was an interesting dichotomy between the two of them, because Rob was very sensitive to the messaging that we wouldn't close. It was the theme at the time, “dodge the lodge” was one of his catchy things. And the city of Detroit didn't like that because they felt that that meant Detroit was closed. And so, MDOT had to scrabble before three of us got in the room one day in a huddle and decided we need to come up with something else to open that up. And we ended up working with Mayor Brenda Lawrence on the other end of the freeway. And we had our first, let's let the citizens and the residents around the freeway walk on the freeway. So we opened up the freeway just before we finished completing it, to open it up to the motoring public, we opened it up to pedestrians to walk, and we had about 400 to 500 people walk on that freeway. That was the first freeway walk we did. And as you know, there was a bigger one out on 96 that I actually helped coordinate with Gretty out there that had thousands of people. The governor showed up at that one, and we thought Kurt Seidel said, “They'll make it bigger than what you did on the Lodge Freeway”, and we had 500 people in the Lodge. And I think 10,000 people showed up to walk that freeway out there, so that just shows from 500 to 10,000. I mean, we had a lot of exciting years out of that.
Cranson: Yeah, that's become kind of a thing now with bridges and certain stretches of road. And I’m amazed at people that'll get out there and put on their rollerblades or just walk, but they really enjoy that kind of celebrating the reopening, and it's a good thing for the community for sure. So, in your transition leaving the governor's office and then working at MDOT, you've had to deal with a lot of things you were working in terms of mega projects, on I-94 through the city. You know, we've learned a lot from the past and from the sins of the past. 375 is the most glaring example, but there are other examples around the state and certainly around the country. And you've paid close attention, obviously, the last several years to what's going on with 375. So, what do you think, how do you talk about that with people without sounding like you’re dismissing or being hypercritical of the engineers and developers from 60-70 years ago, whose thinking in urban renewal was damn the torpedoes, and it didn't really matter who was being displaced and what it was doing to neighborhoods. And talk about that evolution in thinking and whether you think we've come far enough or still have a ways to go.
Davis: That's an excellent example of the history of Detroit and how steep the emotion and the feelings are when you talk about Black Bottom. And Black Bottom was not named for black people, it really was a significant piece of real estate that had very, very rich soil, black soil, that was very fertile. And it was a farming patch in the city of Detroit prior to African Americans or black people moving and settling into that particular area. But as you know in 1950s, it was disrupted—it was a very vibrant African American community—it was disrupted by the freeway. And many, many people did take that message and went in all sorts of directions with it. But I think what I see, and I experience working with the engineers today, was the sensitivity of listening very carefully to the residents and making sure that as you're doing this very technical planning study on I-375 to see whether we should rebuild it or keep bringing up the surface or not, a lot of technical work goes into that with the engineers. But a lot of community sensitivity was baked into the process. And so the hiring of the consulting firm, for example, that worked with MDOT, part of the instruction given to them is, we've got to really get this right by listening to the concerns of those that live in and around that community. And I think MDOT did a stellar job at doing that. It's still a very difficult project rate, you got people on both sides of the aisle that have some strong feelings because—I wasn't around in the 50s, but I remember my father taking me on his shoulder in a protest in the 60s, part of my early experiences. Just walking, and showing up, and making my voice known back then, even as a five-year-old on my father's shoulders. And so, I do recall some of those tough, more sensitive periods in our history.
Cranson: So, do you remember specifically what that was, or were you too young to know what the exact protest issue was?
Davis: The protest…no, I was very young. But there were several big businesses: cleaners, for example, there was a lot of entertainment venues that were displaced and just started going away in the 60s, right after the ‘67 riot. In fact, I lived on Linwood and LaSalle. We went to church on Rosa Parks Boulevard, which before that, it was called 12th street. And I remember my father getting a phone call from the pastor of the church saying, “Don't come to church today because the street is on fire”. And so, 12th street was on fire, and I lived right at Linwood and LaSalle. And I remember tanks coming down my alley, and we had to hide on the floor because they were shooting on the street next to me. And Linwood was on fire, and it was just completely gutted and destroyed. Rosa Parks, 12th street was completely gutted and destroyed. So yeah, I do remember that, I remember vividly that day. But the politics of the day, I was really too young. But it was a very turbulent time. But the thing, Jeff, that probably solidified my thinking to go into public service was right after 1967 when we watched Linwood burn, and we watched 12th street burn. The next day, I remember every one of the residents on my street coming to the curbside, and looking to the left at the devastation, looking to the right of the devastation, and then they looked at each other and said, what the heck can we do to do better. And I remember it was black-white, we had the families black-white on our street. And we all look to each other to figure out what can we do together to make amends and get through this thing. And that was such a poignant conversation, that as a young kid, I’m sitting there listening to people trying to decide what to do. And so, it was just an interesting period in our history.
Cranson: We will continue the conversation right after a quick break.
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Cranson: You know, when you think about the NEPA process, and what that did, and how that informs DOTs now and everything they do when they start planning a project and thinking about the impact, the environmental impact, and the impact on communities and residents, and how it's going to affect their lives. You know, that's all been good, but well beyond that comes that kind of outreach that you're talking about, that need to go in and talk to everybody and hear all their concerns and try to maybe even think of things that they haven't thought of. Because you're worried about their well-being, and how they're going to be affected. As a representative of government, going into some of these meetings in some of these neighborhoods, you had to build trust. And you had to be viewed sometimes as perhaps someone who'd sold out to the other side. And how did you deal with those kinds of conversations and difficult moments?
Davis: Just what you did, something early in this conversation; it was an acknowledgement, the acknowledgement of a person's feelings. Maya Angelou said, I may not remember what you say to me, I may not remember how you say it, but I certainly will remember how I felt, or how you made me feel. And so, part of the thing that I did, and each one of the region engineers made sure, Robert, you've got to be involved in all these mega projects. Because I always wanted to get to the heart of the community. That became sort of a mantra that all of us in Metro region started to think about, was what is the heart of the community saying. And I can talk about example after example; if you think about the gateway project at I-75, which was 180-million-dollar project, the heart of that community was, Jeff, the freeway split the community in the 50s. And part of the gateway project, while it was to build the apron for the ambassador bridge, what I saw the significance was, we put a pedestrian bridge out there that reconnected that neighborhood, that allowed people who were living on the housing side to walk over to the commercial side to get donuts. That simple. But as simple as it was, it was a nine-million-dollar investment for that bridge. It was so significant because what we heard out in that community was, that freeway caused me to not be able to walk to get a doughnut. I mean it was that simple, it was simply that simple.
Cranson: Yeah, that cable state bridge in Mexican town has to be one of the most beautiful pedestrian bridges in the state, if not beyond.
Davis: Absolutely, and then it's something that MDOT did symbolically to say, we're reconnecting neighborhoods. You're right. I mean, if you think about all the technical wizardry that went into building all of that infrastructure down there, it's an engineering genius that did that. But the significant story of that investment from the community's point of view is we can now walk from one side of our business commercial side to our residential side. And that is so important. And so, you asked the question; it's really the heartbeat of the community is the part that I listened for and others in our organization listen for. And it was an important component, and that's why I think the regional engineers, and I worked with Greg Johnson, and Tony Kratofil, and Paul Ajegba, and Kim Avery West. All of them shared in that vision of, let's do our best when we go out there to provide a transportation service, but let's also listen to the community and understand what the need of community is before we proceed.
Cranson: Yeah, you can't overstate that. I mean, 230-million-dollar gateway project to provide a freeway-to-freeway connection and help get truck traffic off of surface streets, that's important and, obviously, that's a huge amount of money. But the money spent on that pedestrian bridge from a symbolic standpoint, you're right, it really it signifies a commitment to the neighborhood, and is still a beautiful thing all these years later.
Cranson: But, speaking of that neighborhood, and not far from where you grew up, obviously; you spent your last few years engaged with the community in the Gordie Howe International Bridge and helping answer questions and help people understand what's going on with that project, how it's going to affect them, and working with Canada and the various community benefits. What did you learn as part of that process?
Davis: Well yeah, I was right there from—in fact, I was there before the Gordie, predates the Gordie Howe is there was a guy named Andy Ziggler who worked for MDOT, very meticulous. He was a planner, he wasn't an engineer, but he worked in the metro region. And he and I used to meet with the Maroon family for a year prior to even, I mean, just discussions about some of the important things that the community wanted to see and have prior to even the planning part started. And so that was back in 07-08, and so that was long before the actual documents were signed, and all those important papers were executed. We were meeting out in the community long before that because we knew that the second span was important and duplication, as we found out just recently, is essential to moving the commerce back and forth across international waters. I actually spent time early on at the beginning with schedule 36; I was on the community benefits committee, the drafted schedule 36. I would go over to Canada for the first two years of that process meeting with the Detroit Windsor Bridge Authority, who did an awesome job at making sure, again, they got it right. We have to make sure that the community's voice, the community's concerns, the community's stake in this process is baked into the infrastructure of the planning, so tight that if none of us are around four or five years from now, the wishes of the community are the mandates, and all the concerns of community are documented somewhere. And then, schedule 36, they are in such a way that the community's concerns are met. When I left, Jeff, in 2021 in June, I was so confident that the community's concerns were all contained and defined in that document that it made it very easy for me to leave on a high note. Because Muhammad, for example, has been there from the very beginning. His heart, his mind, his soul, and all the people that work with him are just…the commitment to that community is ingrained in everything that he's doing over there. And so, I felt good walking away, knowing that the community concerns were going to be met. And I look forward to the day when Gordie Howe is open to see a second span connecting international waters. So, I’m excited about that.
Cranson: Yeah, you and Muhammad are very much alike and aligned in that sense, that you both are all about building those relationships and building that trust. And that's because of the work of Muhammad Al-Gharabi, who's been on the podcast, too, to talk about the project. We have trust and openness and a sense of transparency in the community. So what would you say, Robert, to somebody young starting out in the profession, whether they're in planning or whether they're an engineer and hope to be a project manager at some point? What advice would you give them about dealing with these communities and neighbors that are going to be affected by a road or bridge or another transportation project of some sort?
Davis: I think it's a basic thing that we've got two ears and one mouth. That means we're two to one; we should listen more than we talk. There are times where, as a young person, I’m just starting out, and I remember, I just always thought I had so much to say. And I always feel like I do, but I love so much by just stopping and listening enough to the constituents. And constituent engagement and inclusion, you really have to make that a centerpiece of what you do as a professional, as a young professional, along with, again, my ethic was “public service is a privilege”. It is an honor to serve. And serving is not just there to get a paycheck; it's there to enhance lives.
Cranson: Well, that's well said, Robert. I really appreciate everything that you did for the department and the state, and taking time to share this background, and your story is very helpful. And I look forward to talking with you more.
Davis: Thank you so much, Jeff. I enjoy, and I really appreciate the opportunity to just talk a little bit with you on this Black History Month. Thanks again for inviting me.
Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petey for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.