Two projects that could have been lifted from a 1950s urban planners’ playbook – highway expansions totaling $4 billion – were approved by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments’ (SEMCOG) General Assembly on Thursday.
The projects are part of the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan, a comprehensive regional plan of transportation projects through 2040. While the plan has many positive aspects, these two controversial projects were the main topic of discussion at SEMCOG’s General Assembly Thursday at the Atheneum Suite Hotel in Detroit. Despite 90 minutes of public comment from community members in opposition to the projects, the plan passed by a 1,293-357 final vote of SEMCOG delegates, a weighted vote based on the population of each delegate’s district.
Projects 935 and 2415 were created to ease traffic congestion on Michigan’s packed highways. They would expand 6.7 miles of highway I-94, and widen 17.7 miles of I-75 over the next 22 years. The project would widen these interstates by one vehicle lane and two service lanes on each side, remove several overpass bridges that connect surrounding neighborhoods and require the removal of many nearby buildings including homes, businesses, schools and an iconic recording studio. As Dan Sommerville, policy associate at the Michigan Environmental Council, said in his written testimony, “At a critical time in our region’s economic recovery, this level of division will choke regional growth.” Not only will the project inhibit regional growth, it divulges major federal funds for the region. The I-94 highway expansion would cost $2.7 billion to complete, and I-75 would cost $1.3 billion. Both projects will be paid for primarily through federal funds.
There are ways to use this funding that would create better transportation investments for Southeast Michigan. Conan Smith, Washtenaw County Commissioner and Executive Director of Michigan Suburbs Alliance, outlined a myriad of ways that the money could be better spent, such as using it to lay the foundations of an elevated BRT system or fix one of the 1,354 structurally deficient bridges in Michigan. Bob Prud’homme, Chair of LEED Neighborhood Development, expanded on Smith’s comment about maintenance. “We need to focus on fixing what we already have, not expanding…we have reduced ourselves to one form of transportation”, he said. The idea of maintaining the transportation infrastructure that Michigan already has was a theme echoed in many public comments.
There was a clear message that this project disregards the future of Detroit. One of the University Preparatory Academy elementary schools would be “partially demolished” with the freeway constructions. Both a teacher from the school and a high school administrator spoke on behalf of the school. The elementary school teacher brought in a handful of letters from her second graders saying how much they love the school and would not want it torn down. The administrator noted that they have graduated over 700 students who have gone on to 60 different colleges.
Richard Murphy, RTA Board Member and Programs Director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, suggested an amendment to remove Projects 935 and 2415, which he said are the “the thorns on the rose” for the 2040 plan. Another public commenter referenced research that shows that trip times, in fact, stay constant even with highway expansion. “Traffic grows as freeway space grows,” he said, “and then all that is left is a system that’s expensive to maintain”.
Another topic brought up in public comments was the issue of safety. It is often unsafe to walk across Michigan roads due to having a transportation infrastructure that has an ever-increasing amount of lanes and high vehicle speeds. Cindy Reese, co-chair of MOSES, expressed her desire for a more sustainable form of transportation, and although the funding must be used for highway projects, she said, “I want to at least be able to get around safely until a BRT system is in place”.
There was also testimony from many Detroit residents, some new, and some that have been in the city for years. Carol Foresight, a 30-year Woodbridge neighborhood resident, said, “This project would have been appropriate 50 years ago, but it isn’t today.” Many Detroit residents also spoke on how removing highway overpass bridges would further separate them from the local communities that they frequented by impractically rerouting pedestrian and bicycle paths. As resident Claire Nowak-Boyd stated, “Sure, people can be moved, but community is breakable”.
After hearing dozens of people urging the delegates to reconsider this portion of the plan, and hearing no testimony in favor of these specific projects, SEMCOG began discussion and voting.
The room was abuzz with hope after Detroit Councilman Gary Brown proposed an amendment to send these two projects back to the transportation advisory council. On this amendment, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Metro Region Engineer Tony Kratofil said, “You either build what was approved, or you don’t build anything”. The amendment was defeated.
SEMCOG Chairman Dan O’Leary presented on the measures of project success. He noted that SEMCOG has included inexpensive ways to manage traffic and that maintaining roads is less costly than rebuilding. He continued to reference SEMCOG’s six desired outcomes that the 2040 Plan works to achieve. SEMCOG Council Members then voted in favor of the 2040 Regional Transit Plan.
As one public commenter highlighted, this meeting felt like deja vu, bringing us all back to the 1950s. It was as if we were back to times of Jane Jacobs-esque community organizers in opposition to a Robert Moses-style expansive freeway project that threatens to tear apart the neighborhoods, culture and urban fabric that comprises a great community. Only this time, the community is Detroit instead of New York and for now, Robert Moses won.
As Richard Murphy said, Projects 935 and 2415 are the thorns on an otherwise successful long-term plan. Look for our blog post in coming weeks to outline the positive aspects of the 2040 Plan.
Written by Kajal Ravani, Trans4M Fellow