Reckless Driving: MDOT’s Lead Foot on Freeway Projects
The public appeals to delegates entering SEMCOG’s June meeting. The sign in back, “No new gas tax, Snyder — We don’t need our freeways wider,” demonstrates our trust problem.
Over the past few years, Governor Snyder’s Lansing has added its support to several promising initiatives for Michigan’s neighborhoods and downtowns: the MIPlace Partnership Initiative, statewide rollout of Redevelopment Ready Communities, and the establishment of metro Detroit’s new Regional Transit Authority have all shown that the Governor gets what makes communities successful, and what our older communities will need to stabilize and recover.
In that context, MDOT’s current sprint to expand freeways is especially mystifying. Even as the Department assures local communities and transit agencies that Michigan has a transportation funding shortage, they are doing everything they can to rush billions of dollars worth of their own projects into construction—with plans to expand two highways meeting stiff resistance, the Department has doubled down, adding a third expansion project and rushing them to SEMCOG’s Executive Committee for approval this Friday.
In June, SEMCOG approved the inclusion of expansion projects on I-94 and I-75 in their 30-year-plan, bundling them into larger reconstruction and safety projects and asserting that the work was all or nothing. When General Assembly delegates and community members expressed concerns with the projects, they were told that we could only talk about whether these projects should advance, and in what form…after we move them forward. Besides, there was plenty of time to discuss the projects in detail, because they weren’t scheduled for construction for several years.
This week, SEMCOG will be acting on an MDOT request not only to fast track parts of those projects into the construction queue, moving up $230 million worth of construction to start in 2014, but also to add yet another expansion project to the mix: US-23, between Ann Arbor and Brighton, will get the extra lane treatment in 2016, under MDOT’s newly unveiled plans. (Except they’re not extra lanes, say MDOT and SEMCOG: they’re shoulders, but they just happen to be shoulders that are built wide enough and strong enough to carry traffic, and they’ll have striping and signs letting traffic drive on them–but they’re not extra lanes. Really.)
MDOT is seeking a “categorical exclusion” from Federal review processes for the US-23 project, a designation that asserts the impacts of the project on health, safety and the environment will be so negligible that it’s not even worth analyzing them. This comes despite MDOT’s own 2009 Feasibility Study of this highway segment, which recommended that three different options “be carried forward for further evaluation in the environmental process, as each was found to present a viable option for improving trafﬁc operations throughout the corridor.”
It’s no secret that MDOT has a public trust problem, and these moves are only making it worse. A few weeks ago in Lansing, a legislator told me not to expect a transportation funding package any time soon—because “we can’t trust” what would happen with the money. This reflects the comments I heard at a town hall meeting in Southfield last summer, where a resident stated, “I understand the need to invest in our transportation system, and I support investing—I just want to know that my money’s going to be spent on the things that are important to me.” (In her case, fixing potholed roads, better transit, and safer streets for pedestrians.)
As the immediate impact of this public trust problem, communities are starting to give up on the SEMCOG process and elevating the question to higher agencies. In Detroit, with SEMCOG staff continuing their vaguely Orwellian statements that we need to fund these projects in order to have conversations about whether we should proceed with them, affected community members have decided they need to state their concerns on a higher level: yesterday, a coalition of community groups filed a formal request with the Federal Highway Administration requesting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement process for the I-94 project. The Michigan Environmental Council is similarly requesting that FHWA review the plans for US-23 before MDOT can proceed.
Looking longer term, however, MDOT needs to slow down and show that they understand the concerns with these projects and are willing to open up the projects for discussion. Failing to do this will only cement the lack of trust in our transportation agencies, guaranteeing that our roads, bridges and transit systems continue to crumble as new funding is denied.
The Freep’s John Gallagher had it right on in his column on Sunday:
“At this point, we don’t know what will happen with either the I-375 or I-94 projects. But we ought to use this occasion to raise the level of debate on the role of freeways in Detroit and other cities.
Highways may in fact be the right answer for cities. But freeways are never free. There’s always a cost to building them that goes well beyond the dollars.
And Detroiters need to decide whether they’re willing to go on paying that cost.”
We couldn’t agree more: I-94 needs a rebuild, to be sure, but dismissing out of hand the concerns that decade-old expansion plans might need a refresher only harms our chances of getting the funding that our transportation system needs. Since neither MDOT nor SEMCOG staff seem interested in having that conversation, we ask you to join us in asking the Executive Committee to inject some accountability into this process: you can find contact info on SEMCOG’s website.
About Richard Murphy
Murph is one of the region’s leading transportation experts and was recently appointed to the board of the Regional Transit Authority as a representative of Washtenaw County. Before joining the Suburbs Alliance, he worked as the City Planner for the City of Ypsilanti. He currently sits on the Ypsilanti Planning Commission and holds an MUP degree focusing on Transportation Planning from the University of Michigan.
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