House bill would ban spending $4 billion on I-94, I-75 widening projects

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State. Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak)
  • State. Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak)

Just weeks after a national study called the $2.7 billion proposal to widen I-94 one lane in each direction in Detroit a "boondoggle," a state representative has introduced a bill that would ban any spending on the massive project.

State Rep. Jim Townsend, a Democrat of Royal Oak, introduced House Bill 5883, which would prohibit the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) from spending approximately $4 billion to tackle the expansion of I-94 in Detroit and I-75 in Oakland County. 

"These freeway expansions are an epic waste of money," says Townsend, in a statement Wednesday. "At a time when we should be investing our scarce road dollars on fixing the roads we already have, MDOT is instead pursuing a freeway expansion that will weaken our economy and saddle taxpayers with new lanes to maintain in the future."

Townsend adds: "We could literally repair every pothole in southeast Michigan with the amount of money the state wants to waste on these two projects."

For years, MDOT has put forth the proposal to widen a 6.7-mile stretch of I-94 in Detroit one lane in each direction, as well as I-75 from 8 Mile Road to M-59. The state says both projects are needed to alleviate rush hour congestion and would make the roads safer. Critics like Townsend counter, saying that an additional lane would be useless — that it's of a mindset that represents an auto-centric frame of mind from years past.  

MDOT does share some common ground with opponents: Both sides agree the roadways need serious infrastructure repairs, but Townsend and others question why additional taxpayer dollars should be spent on widening the freeways.

With the I-94 project, some say the freeway would cut off the thriving Midtown neighborhood from New Center, at a time when the area is enjoying a resurgence of investment. And, in doing so, a number of buildings — such as the United Sound Systems recording studio on Second Avenue — would have to be demolished to facilitate the project.

"We should be investing in Michigan’s future by rebuilding the infrastructure we have, not throwing more money at failed transportation policies straight out of the 1960s," says Townsend. "We know that doesn’t work.”

Metro Times examined the criticisms offered by opponents of the I-94 project at length in a January 2013 cover story.  

A significant part of the opposition is basically this: At a time more people — Young People™(!) — are clamoring for more efficient public transit, why does the state want to invest heavily in a project that will put Metro Detroit's two busiest freeways under construction for decades? By MDOT's estimate, these projects won't be completed until the late 2020s and into the 2030s.

In response to a request for comment from Metro Times today on Townsend's bill, MDOT pushed back, saying the segments of I-75 and I-94 in question, and many overpasses, are in "severe need of rebuilding." 

"If they are to be rebuilt, it only makes sense to plan for future needs," MDOT says. 

With the I-94 project, MDOT says no more than 20 percent of the costs would be spent on additional roadway; for I-75, it's estimated to be about 2 percent. Using those figures, that would roughly work out to be approximately $880 million. 

But, MDOT says, "when the study is done, that could be less." 

"Both are extremely important commercial corridors, vital to businesses which rely on trucking in an era of just-in-time delivery," MDOT adds. "It's all about balance. MDOT is a multi-modal department, supporting Complete Streets, the M-1 Rail project on Woodward Avenue, the establishment of an RTA (50 years in the making), and just this week, helping DDOT buy 50 new buses. Still, there is nothing to indicate that freeways will not remain an important part of metro Detroit's transportation system."

Townsend's criticism, however, was boosted last month, when the Washington D.C.-based U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released a study that labeled the I-94 project one of the nation's worst "highway boondoggles" in the works.

The national watchdog group's study called into question lawmakers contention that such projects are needed at a time U.S. diving trends have changed drastically.

For instance, since 2005, the total number of miles Americans drive has dropped 7 percent, the report notes. Even so, our state and federal government continue to spend billions on highway projects "based on ... obsolete assumptions, wrote Phineas Baxandall, U.S. PIRG senior analyst and co-author of the report, in a prepared statement.

“The time has come to shift our resources to invest in 21st century priorities, like fixing our roads and bridges and providing more Americans with a wider range of transportation choices," Baxandall wrote last month. 

One of the issues the report takes with MDOT's decision to widen I-94 is that it's based on outdated forecasts and projections from 2003, which show vehicle miles traveled would spike 11 percent by 2005.

Of course, that hasn't been the case. PIRG points out, "these miles had already fallen 14 percent by 2013." 

MDOT says a consultant is gathering "up-to-date" traffic data, and will receive a recommendation on lane configurations — that is, whether or not additional lanes are needed — within the next three months.

To Nick Schoreck, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, the I-94 project would likely only cause more of the same issues MDOT aims to fix.

“The plan to widen I-94 is likely to increase traffic volumes, congestion, and air pollution over the long term in a city where adult asthma rates are more than twice as high as the state average, and which contains 5 of the top 25 most polluted ZIP codes in Michigan," Schroeck wrote in a statement at the time of the report's release.

As Schroeck points out, Michigan's fifth-most polluted ZIP code, 48211, lies smack dab in the center of the project's proposed span.

Critics also highlight the phenomenon known as "induced demand" — in essence, the idea that if you build additional lanes, the freeway will eventually attract more motorists, requiring the supposed need for more lanes, and so on — would likely quash any projections that simply widening the freeway one lane will ease bottlenecks during peak hours.

In response to Metro Times questions last year about the possibility induced demand could be a factor in the future, an MDOT official said they understand the concept and that, "sure, there might be more traffic, but there is the need for the roadway now." 

This isn't an issue that only Townsend's kin takes issue with: The representative's bill has attracted bi-partisan support, according to a news release, with 17 representatives signing on as co-sponsors. 

The bill has been referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for consideration.


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