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Build It Bigger: A 20th Century Solution to a 21st Century Challenge on I-94 and I-75

06/19/2013 03:23 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2013
  • Conan Smith Washtenaw County Commissioner; executive director, Michigan Suburbs Alliance

On Thursday, at SEMCOG's General Assembly, metro leaders will vote on the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan, setting the course for $36 billion in investments in our network of roads, bridges and transit. It is grounded in a solid vision of a sustainable region slowly recovering from economic turmoil. Two massive projects, however, stand out as incompatible with interests articulated by the region's residents and the data that should be driving decision-making. These projects, conceived in the last century, deserve a second look before we rush into a costly error.

As part of a larger (and more justifiable) investment in I-94 and I-75, the plan proposes to widen portions of those highways by a lane in each direction and add a network of service lanes. The footprint of the highways grows enough to require numerous neighborhood homes and businesses to be moved or destroyed, including the oldest recording studio in the Motown, the place where Marvin Gaye recorded his iconic protest song, "What's Going On?"

In response to periodic congestion on these highways, SEMCOG proposes to make them bigger. Widening a highway has been the region's traditional "demand management" response, and it is distinctly a 20th century solution. It is a response that has resulted in ours being the only major metropolitan area in the nation without a comprehensive transit system to serve commuters. It is a response that has facilitated massive outmigration from our core city, helping to exacerbate the concentration of poverty that underpins Detroit's current economic struggles. It is a response that looks to the past rather than the future and offers our region, essentially, more of the same.

These projects fly in the face of SEMCOG's own data. Analysts don't see the population or employment figures returning to 2000 levels in the next 25 years. Growth in regional travel is expected to be marginal. Residents themselves express a disheartening depression about the future vision for our transportation system. Most say the roads aren't good, and they think they will probably get worse. Most say our transit system sucks and will stay that way. And they're not blind to the dysfunction in our planning process:

"While 70 percent indicate more funding is needed, 73 percent also say the amount of funding is not the problem; it's how efficiently we're using it." (2040 Regional Transportation Plan, Executive Summary)

Recently, my county voted unanimously to oppose the inclusion of these expansion projects in the plan. This week, Detroit City Council voted against them. We are joined by civic leaders and elected officials from communities whose fates are tied to both these corridors.

Take the small city of Hazel Park, now situated at a tight bend in I-75. This is a city that's done everything right in this tough economy. They created a Promise Zone to help their kids get to college. They reformed their redevelopment practices to encourage business investment. They added 9.5 mills to their taxes (with an overwhelming majority vote of the residents) to maintain their quality of life and stave off draconian cuts to their local government. And yet, transportation planning like this is a gut-punch to them. It funnels people through -- not to -- their businesses and neighborhoods. It threatens to further undermine their community and economic development efforts. Their city manager, Ed Klobucher, a lifelong resident of the city, sees I-75 becoming drain on his community rather than pulsing life into it, the way a more visionary transportation system would.

These expansion projects, say SEMCOG, are a small part of the total plan and should be left alone. But small is relative. Together, expansion expenses will likely reach $600M. That's about 1.5 percent of the total plan -- 1.5 percent of all our transportation dollars for the next 25 years. I personally don't think $1.50 of every $100 is a marginal expense. And I can think of a number of ways I'd prefer to use $600M to help people move around the region.

The easy pick is transit, but these particular dollars can't be used to support buses and trains. Or could they? The new Regional Transit Authority legislation calls for bus rapid transit along Woodward and connecting Ann Arbor to Detroit. The best BRT systems run on dedicated lanes to elevated stations -- like trains with rubber tires. These road dollars could be used to build that system, potentially giving thousands of commuters a choice other than contributing to traffic. Early estimates suggest that $600M would build us the best BRT route in the nation.

Or let's get even further afield and invest in the kinds of public policy and entrepreneurial technology that enable drivers to avoid creating congestion in the first place. For small fraction of $600M we could turn these congestion points into a community challenge to be solved by innovation. The University of Michigan's SMART program has hundreds of successful models from around the world (in places even more blocked up than metro Detroit!).

Or how about this: Reprioritize that $600M to tackle the region's 321 structurally deficient bridges that Transportation For America reported on this week. Or maybe fix up the ragged service lanes we already have. There's no shortage of maintenance work to be done here.

SEMCOG's director derides residents who oppose expanding highways as extremists who will harm the long-term interests of the region. Like those who stood opposite the picket lines in Gaye's lament, he appears to be willfully closing his ears to the concerns of his own constituency who seek a different future for our region than the one starkly outlined by the highway system.

It's rare that SEMCOG faces opposition from its members. It's rarer still that citizens show up to their meetings to express concern. Something's up here, and the delegates to the General Assembly should pay attention. The complaints of residents and civic leaders are neither invalid nor extreme. They express a very real desire to see our transportation system serve our communities in a fundamentally different way. As community activists, elected officials and planning professionals, we've started a conversation the region needs to have. We shouldn't be ignored or denigrated. We should be engaged.

In the words of the Prince of Soul, "Talk to me, so you can see what's going on."

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