Fighting the Road Hogs

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As described in a groundbreaking Metro Times story earlier this year, "A Highway Runs Through It," a plan is moving ahead to spend $3.8 billion expanding sections of I-75 and I-94 in metro Detroit. Of particular interest to Detroiters is the part of the plan that calls for expanding a 6.7-mile stretch of I-94 between I-96 and Conner Avenue — at a cost of $1.8 billion. The plan would enlarge the gulfs separating Midtown — now experiencing a full-on resurgence — from the neighborhoods around it. In fact, the plan calls for removing several pedestrian and vehicular bridges connecting Midtown to Woodbridge and New Center. The staggering amount of money to be spent, the loss of the bridges, and the emphasis on speeding commuters through the city at its expense has new urbanists pissed. And the fact that the plan encroaches on the eclectic Fourth Street neighborhood, as well as threatening historic United Sound Studios, has preservationists questioning if this is really necessary. Then there is metro Detroit's newfound interest in what rapid transit, specifically BRT and light rail, can do to revamp our fair city, all of which will likely cost a fraction of this multibillion-dollar roadbuilding spree. Add to this the fact that highway widening is now widely considered to be an ineffective way to relieve traffic congestion, and MDOT and SEMCOG appear out of step with the latest scholarship about how urban freeways behave. Yet, a protest at a vote on the matter this summer didn't deter the bigwigs from pushing ahead with the program.

Since then, pressure seems to have been mounting to re-evaluate the project. In May, then-mayoral candidate Mike Duggan announced his opposition to the expansion, and now that Duggan is mayor-elect, perhaps there are some tremors along the MDOT-SEMCOG fault line. We make this observation because SEMCOG is meeting to put the spending on a fast-track today, before Duggan will have a chance to make good on his (admittedly vague) campaign remarks. But you don't have to be a complete cynic to see today's vote as a sort of pre-emptive strike in the battle to preserve a plan that many people simply don't want.

Today's vote takes place at 1 p.m. at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments offices, Ste. 1400, 1001 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Opponents have vowed to meet int he lobby at 12:30 p.m.

Sounds like a good old-fashioned political fight. Stay tuned for more.

Postscript at 3 p.m.: A little birdie who was at the hearing told us the fast-track proposal passed on a 24-7 vote that was characterized as "fairly unified." But there were also signs of a bigger fight coming. State Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak) was reported to have said he’d do what he could to defund the highway-expansion projects specifically, joining a at least one other politician striking a populist, anti-expansion note. This ain't over yet, as they say.

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