This summer, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) approved the widening of both I-94 and I-75 despite dozens of protesters speaking out against the plans. In early December, an alliance of community organizations and individuals sent a letter to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration requesting a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the I-94 plans, alleging that the previous EIS is outdated and therefore inaccurate. Then, last Friday (Dec. 6), SEMCOG approved an amendment to fast track the projects, again, despite more public outcry against it.
On the flip side, the City of Detroit is considering downsizing another highway, I-375, a one-mile stretch connecting I-75 and Jefferson along the east side of downtown. The Downtown Development Authority planned to hire a consultant by Dec. 6th to explore the feasibility of the boulevard option; we are awaiting an announcement.
I-375 opened to traffic in 1964 and is controlled by MDOT as part of the Federal Highway System. In its current state, needed repair costs are estimated at $80 million–an amount MDOT says they do not have. MDOT adds that, when investing that kind of money in infrastructure, it is prudent to ensure that the transportation infrastructure plans support the total vision for the city’s future.
Naturally, Michiganders (and others) are already coming out in favor and opposition to the potential plans.
Advocates believe reconnecting of the Lafayette Park and other east side residential neighborhoods and Eastern Market to downtown could have major positive impact on the whole area, improving walkability and strengthening the connective tissue within and between all of the districts. Cities all over the world have been reversing the highway boom of the mid-1900s, opting instead for density and alternative forms of mobility, guided by the idea that these conditions lead to happier, healthier cities and people in them. In light of these changing trends, and the shifts taking place because people are asking for more walkable (livable) urban cores, the boulevard option appeals to many.
MDOT Director Kirk Steudle says the boulevard option could open up around twelve acres for development adjacent to Greektown, a lively neighborhood, which could generate revenue for the (bankrupt) city. As a mended urban fabric may lead to higher land values—it could eventually generate even more revenue for the city. Proponents add that it would also save the city money over time as repairing the sunken interstate is so costly. Preliminary estimates at boulevarding the interstate are also pegged at $80 million, but could be partially funded through a public-private partnership, easing the strain on the city.
As the main east side link to nearby freeways, opponents say downsizing would cause congestion; commuter traffic – up to 80,000 cars per day – would need to find alternate routes. Some locals, too, appreciate the convenience the freeway brings, noting how quickly they can travel to other parts of the city via the corridor. Opponents also worry that lowering access to downtown venues used for conventions and other attractions could hurt the economy.
To counter the congestion argument, boulevard advocates they say that with the reconnecting of the city grid, and a boulevard in its place, the cars that use I-375 could be dispersed without adding congestion, and that an appropriate design of the boulevard could facilitate easy movement.
The consultant team is supposed to have a proposal next July.
We are pleased to see mention of “community engagement meetings” and “stakeholders to be consulted” among the details. But it is not only the responsibility of the consultants and planners. Everyone in Southeast Michigan should take advantage of the opportunity and voice their opinion. The best way for this process to result in a plan that will provide a balanced solution for everyone’s needs is for everyone to participate.
Part of Let’s Save Michigan’s mission is to motivate Michiganders to take part in these discussions. We love seeing citizens stepping forward, and using their voice to express well informed, detailed reasoning as part of a discussion. We especially love when people put the needs of an entire community at the forefront of their argument, not just their own.
A typical Highway Debate
The debates happening in Michigan right now are pretty typical – typical because ever since we mapped out our American landscape with the highway system, people have been working to resolve the resulting conditions created in our cities. These decisions frequently turn into the highway debate, and it has gone around in circles countless times in just about every city throughout the country.
We applaud John Gallagher, who in his recent Detroit Free Press article called on us to “raise the level of the debate on the role of freeways in Detroit and other cities.” Instead of repeating the discussion that has happened time and time again, again, let’s reach a deeper understanding and design a transportation system based on the region’s priorities.
Photo credit: Bob Allen, Crain’s Detroit Business