by Ryan Felton
Previous plans to expand I-375 would have provided easiest access for RenCen employees to the expressway.
Urban planners took notice when the Michigan Department of Transportation announced plans to inch forward with a possible revamp to I-375 in Detroit.
State transit officials and the City of Detroit will hold the first of three public meetings Thursday that could eventually lead to the one-mile drag's reconstruction as a surface street. It's not uncharted territory: Cities across the country -- San Francisco and Milwaukee come to mind -- have ditched transportation ideals of the past and actually eliminated portions of expressways in favor of a slower-paced boulevard.
But, it wasn't so long ago that MDOT and Detroit officials were pushing for an entirely different plan -- an expansion of I-375 that would have offered quicker access to employees of the Renaissance Center and the riverfront casinos that
saved Detroit were never built.
Ann Mullen, a former Metro Times staff writer, wrote about the "boondoggle," as one critic called it, back in 2000 as the plan unfolded.
Well, News Hits inspected the maps, saw the slide show and read MDOT’s skimpy report. And we left pondering this question: Who does this plan serve? Let’s see. There’s General Motors and, there’s, well, General Motors. (Oh, yes, the casinos will also be served. But MDOT made no mention of this since our chubby-cheeked GOV. ENGLER insists that not one state dime is to go toward Detroit casinos.)
The other ass-burner is how MDOT attempted to convince parishioners, who hosted the hearing at Christ Church Hall on East Jefferson, that this project is merely about the 30 to 50 church parking spaces that the I-375 expansion will do away with. MDOT assured churchgoers that it will help find them ample parking elsewhere. (Don’t hold your breath.) Well, believers and nonbelievers, you can bet that there is much more to this project than MDOT is letting on.
Six months later, plans were put on hold by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, who voted against the expansion and delayed the project for a year. But, in June 2001, just over three weeks after the vote, then-Mayor Dennis Archer swayed SEMCOG's executive director into reconsidering the planning agency's decision. From Mullen:
That was all SEMCOG needed to take a second vote. After a good hour of debate, a short, plump woman uttered these sensible words during the public comment period: “If it ain’t rush hour, you can just about shoot a cannon up 375. I don’t think you need to do that much expansion for a rush-hour problem.”
But rush hour is precisely what concerns the mayor. After all, many of those traveling I-375 during peak times are GM employees. And when GM — or big business of any kind for that matter — talks, Archer listens. The group voted overwhelmingly to include the expansion in its regional plan, proving that when Archer talks, SEMCOG listens.
Eventually, opponents of the project prevailed -- including Transportation Riders United, a local grassroots mass transit group -- and the expansion was shelved. A rather interesting point about I-375 was offered by TRU's co-founder Karen Kendrick-Hands had in the op-ed pages of the Detroit Free Press back in August of 2000. From the archives of ProQuest:
MDOT wants to compound its decades-old mistake by spending $60 million for the extension and ramps, plus an extra $25 million for the surface street upgrades, thus committing to a future of auto-dependence. There's a better idea, inspired by President Richard Nixon's budget director Caspar Weinberger, suggesting that "tearing down freeways and replacing them with boulevards may become one of the great public works endeavors of the 21st Century." That's exactly what we should do with I-375.
If GM, the City of Detroit and MDOT ask a different question -- one that requires vision -- they can radically alter the paradigm of Detroit's redevelopment: "How best can we invest transportation dollars downtown to facilitate access for pedestrians and transit, as well as cars, while reclaiming valuable land for green space or investment?" The answer is to bury I-375, not extend it.
And here we are, 14 years later. It's amazing what a little time does for some.