Environmental groups see route to block Michigan highway expansion

As the Legislature grapples with how to fund $1.2 billion in road repairs, activist groups say they know how Michigan can easily trim costs on several major road projects.

Repair and modernize the roads, but don’t expand them.

Exhibit A: The controversial 20-year, $2.9-billion highway modernization I-94 project slicing through Midtown Detroit. Community and environmental groups acknowledge that this 6.7-mile stretch, like many in Michigan, needs to be updated and made more safe. What they object to are plans to add a lane in each direction along with service roads parallel to the highway.

Opponents of expansion say the state’s plans are based on inflated traffic projections and are unnecessary with trends showing that (when adjusted for population growth) people are driving less, not more. Watchdog groups are also drawing strength (and, they hope, leverage) from successful anti-expansion movements in other states, and say they may file suit in federal court in Michigan.

“We’re definitely considering all legal options,” said Nick Schroeck, director of the Detroit-based Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s I-94 project. There is also opposition building to major road projects in Oakland, Ottawa and Saginaw counties.

MDOT said it is reevaluating aspects of the I-94 plan, but has no intention of performing a lengthy review of the project. The department maintains that its expansion plans are not wasteful, but are guided foremost by safety concerns spawned by thousands of accidents along I-94.

In July, MDOT held four public meetings to gather input from residents and survey how they feel about contentious portions of the I-94 project.
MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi said he would “hesitate to use the word ‘negotiation,’” to describe the meetings.

“We wanted input on what they thought were certain elements that were vitally important,” he said, such as service drives and bridge overpasses. “We are still reviewing the survey results.”

Schroeck’s group said a full supplemental assessment is needed under the National Environmental Policy Act because the projected project has dragged on for so long.
Morosi counters that MDOT is meeting legal requirements by “reevaluating” the project as it moves along. Should a judge agree with the advocates, it could take years to perform a supplemental assessment.

“A supplemental (impact statement) would require us to go back to step one and move forward. Based on the condition and need of this freeway, we don’t feel that (it’s needed) given the time it would take and also the costs,” Morosi said.

MDOT is looking to complete a final highway design on the I-94 project by 2018 and start construction in 2019, with work on 10 bridges in serious need of repairs starting before then.

Whether additional lanes and service drives are needed based on new traffic projections is still to be determined, Morosi said.

Advocates point to a series of legal and economic decisions in nearby states, including Illinois, rejecting highway expansions because projected increases in traffic were based on faulty assumptions by state planners.

Such projects have implications for already-stretched transportation budgets, the environment and those who don’t — or can’t — travel by car.

According to MDOT, the additional lane and service drives make up one-fifth of the I-94 project’s cost.

“Adding highway lanes isn’t needed and, second of all, we don’t have the money,” Schroeck said. “It doesn’t seem to make sense when we can’t afford to maintain the roads we have. We’re confident that a judge looking at this project would find significant flaws in the existing analysis.”

The group said it has the same concerns for a plan to widen I-75 in Oakland County.
An expansion project started earlier this year in Saginaw County adding a lane in each direction on I-75 for 3.75 miles. And next year, MDOT plans to start work on adding a lane in each direction to relieve congestion on a 2.5-mile stretch of U.S. 31 in Ottawa County.

“I can’t figure out while looking at these numbers why you’d want to go forward with these expansions,” Schroeck said.

1950s design, 2050 traffic

For MDOT, the I-94 project is all about safety. Morosi said that an additional lane will help relieve congestion in high-crash areas of the project, which saw more than 4,000 crashes over a five-year period between 2010-2014, according to the agency.

He also stressed that the project is much more than just adding a lane in each direction. It includes replacing 67 bridge structures along the nearly 7-mile stretch, modernizing the on- and off-ramps for easier access and installing new infrastructure, such as new drainage and utilities under the road and electrical conduits for better lighting.

Original construction of this stretch of highway started in 1947 and hasn’t been reconfigured since.

“We’re taking a 1950s design and redesigning if for 2050 traffic,” Morosi said. An example of such outdated traffic planning is how I-94 still has left-lane on- and off-ramps, which “aren’t ideal conditions” for modern driving, he said.

MDOT started looking at rebuilding this section of I-94 in the mid-‘90s. It completed an environmental impact assessment in 2004 and approval to proceed was granted by the federal government in 2005.

The project made headlines in 2013 when it was reported that the historic United Sound Systems Recording Studios ‒ which gave birth to early Motown sounds and recorded such legends as John Lee Hooker, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin ‒ was in jeopardy of being demolished to make room for the project.

The fate of that site is undetermined, Morosi said. The state offered to move the studio if a service drive is needed along that stretch, but it is also still investigating whether the project can be done without affecting the building.

Lowered traffic numbers

The law center initially got involved to look at the department’s environmental impact statement for the project, which relied on traffic counts from the mid 1990s.

For example, MDOT projected in 2004 that average annual daily traffic along the western portion of the project would increase by 110,000 vehicles by 2025. By last year, though, traffic had only increased by 9,500 vehicles since 2004. The agency made similar projections for the rest of the project area, but those segments actually saw traffic counts decrease from 2004 to 2014.

MDOT’s projections were based on figures in the Southeast Michigan Council of Government’s (SEMCOG) 2025 regional transportation plan, completed in 2000.

“The projections they made for traffic volume seemed pretty outrageous, pretty optimistic,” Schroeck said, given the dramatic population decline in Detroit since the 1990s. “We started looking at what their projected travel numbers were and what the actual numbers were and we found they were off pretty significantly. They were projecting massive increases in vehicle miles traveled and massive increases in congestion. None of that happened.”

After these issues were raised by outside groups, MDOT updated its traffic counts in fall 2014, showing relatively small increases by 2036 when compared to previously projected.

Morosi said the new figures showed a “slight growth” in traffic volumes in Midtown, but “pretty much stagnant” growth along the rest of the project to the east. The new projections still anticipate growth into the future — roughly 20,000 vehicles a day more — which leaves critics continuing to question the agency’s methods.

“I don’t understand where that huge uptick is coming from,” Schroeck said of the latest projections. “Magic dust that creates new cars? We’ll make arguments that they can’t really justify these projections. Maybe it’s their best guess, but it’s based on faulty assumptions that people will continue driving more.”

Morosi counters that “it’s important to understand that Midtown (Detroit) is growing” with an influx of new businesses and residents. “People are coming back into this city and into Midtown.” Those trends factored into the future projections, he said.

“We addressed the biggest concern of using outdated numbers,” Morosi said.
Schroeck agreed Midtown is growing, but said it’s growing “into a pedestrian-friendly community. … Adding additional lanes to I-94, and adding service drives would create a bigger moat between Midtown and New Center, which is the opposite of what is needed.”

Shared costs

The federal government would pick up 81.5 percent of the $2.9 billion price tag of the I-94 project through Detroit (stretched over 20 years and factoring in inflation). The state would be responsible for the remaining 18.5 percent, while the city of Detroit would reportedly have to cover 12.5 percent of the state’s share, or roughly $67 million.

Detroit City Councilwoman, Raquel Castañeda-López, whose district borders portions of the project, supports the infrastructure improvements but said she has questions and concerns about the expansion.

“Who is that really benefitting?” she asked. “I think people just coming in and out of the city. Is it going to have a negative impact on people living and working in that area? It seems somewhat limited in approach. I would like to see a more comprehensive strategy.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office did not provide a response when asked about his position on the I-94 expansion.

Some groups have raised questions about the project’s impact on non-motorized transportation options for people living near the highway if several I-94 overpass bridges and pedestrian crossings are removed.

Liz Treutel, who specializes in transportation policy for the Michigan Environmental Council, expressed concerns over limiting access points for pedestrians traveling to public-transportation access points by removing bridges.
“That’s creating a divide for folks who are maybe taking public transit,” she said. “With the proposal as it is now, it creates significantly more travel time for pedestrians. That just creates more barriers for them to access jobs, grocery stores and friends.”

So too, environmental groups have raised concerns about air pollution under the disputed concept of “induced traffic” — that is, that traffic volumes will increase if a highway is expanded and can accommodate more vehicles.

“That’s going to have impacts on local air emissions in an area that’s already the highest-polluted area of Michigan,” Schroeck said.

“We are aware of the theory,” Morosi responded. “But we want to build the safest roadway we can build.”

Road projects blocked elsewhere

In May, groups opposing expansion projects saw a federal judge’s ruling blocking a highway expansion project in Wisconsin as having possible national implications. Similar to I-94, the Wisconsin project was conceived in the 1990s.

A federal judge in Milwaukee ruled that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation failed to show how expanding the project was justified based on traffic predictions. The ruling vacated previous approval for the project and barred the state from using federal money to pay for it.

The decision proved vindication for Wisconsin organizations that had been criticized as radical fringe groups for opposing development.

A month later, another federal judge halted a controversial 50-mile, $1.3 billion tollway project outside Chicago because previous approval for it was based on “faulty” analysis. That ruling followed the announcement by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner that his state — which also faces tightening transportation dollars — was temporarily backing away from the project over cost concerns.

Those projects — along with the I-94 expansion — were labeled “boondoggles” in reports last year by the Wisconsin and U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer watchdog organization. The group’s national report picked out 11 proposed highway projects across the country slated to cost at least $13 billion as a waste of infrastructure spending, particularly as Americans are driving less.

Schroeck, of the environmental law center, said what groups like his want is more transparency from the state on projected traffic volume. If MDOT can’t justify the road expansion, public money shouldn’t be used to support it.

“We’re called reactionary and fringe groups,” Schroeck said. “Really, all we’re saying is, let’s be smart about this. I don’t think that’s a real fringe opinion.”
Whether lawmakers in Lansing share the same concerns remains unclear.

State Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, called the I-94 expansion “an epic waste of money” in a statement last year as he introduced legislation looking to prohibit the state from spending millions on the expansion portions. The bill died in committee, but it also had a bipartisan slate of 17 co-sponsors from around the state.

Carmine Palombo, deputy executive director of SEMCOG, which granted local approval for the project to move forward, told the publication Midwest Energy News in June that environmental groups’ concern over expanding road lanes misses the bigger picture.

“The project is primarily to improve public safety and improve access to three international crossings,” Palombo said, referencing crossings to Canada. “There’s a lot going on here that’s just not...‘We have a lot of cars, let’s widen the road,’ which is what critics want to categorize it as.

“We don’t do projects based on what legislators want, we do projects based on current situations and projecting traffic in the future based on where people are projected to live and where jobs will be. People that have a particular issue don’t see the full picture of things that are going on.”

For its part, MDOT hasn’t made a final determination on whether to add lanes on I-94, but vows to make that decision based on issues important to the public.

“You may be surprised to learn this project is not about getting from downtown to suburbia as fast as we can,” Morosi said. “It’s about the safest infrastructure we can design.”

Andy Balaskovitz is a freelance reporter based in Grand Rapids who covers energy policy in Michigan and the Midwest for multiple publications. He previously spent four years at (Lansing) City Pulse as a reporter and managing editor.

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Thu, 09/03/2015 - 6:55am
"Opponents of expansion say the state’s plans are based on inflated traffic projections and are unnecessary with trends showing that (when adjusted for population growth) people are driving less, not more. "So the numbers are "inflated", eh? Then I highly recommend that these knuckleheads take a drive down I-94, from, oh I don't know, 6am-10am and then from 4pm-7pm Monday through Friday. Be sure to get back to the Bridge people with their findings. It will make a good follow up to this article. Speaking as someone who actually drives that stretch of highway, I can tell you that adding one lane isn't going to be enough. But wait, there's more:Liz Treutel, who specializes in transportation policy for the Michigan Environmental Council, expressed concerns over limiting access points for pedestrians traveling to public-transportation access points by removing bridges. “That’s creating a divide for folks who are maybe taking public transit,” she said. “With the proposal as it is now, it creates significantly more travel time for pedestrians. That just creates more barriers for them to access jobs, grocery stores and friends.”Newsflash: There are very little, if any, people living along the proposed stretch of I-94. Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young saw to that when he flattened Poletown nearly 30-years ago. I can also tell you that I have not seen very many D-DOT buses running in that area either. So where Ms. Treutel is getting her information from about these "affected" passengers is anyone's guess. But, what does someone who actually uses I-94 on a daily basis know?
Marc Z
Thu, 09/03/2015 - 10:12am
20 years? It's already been 20 years and this should be done already. Detroit needs a comprehensive plan to rework it's highway system. I-375 should be converted back to surface streets. I-94 expanded (local/express lanes are what's really needed), I-94/I75 and I-94/M-10 interchanges need to be redesigned, the I-75 Rouge River Bridge needs to be replaced. Suggestions on how to do these projects better are welcome. Anyone saying they shouldn't be done should be ignored.
Dick Hooker
Thu, 09/03/2015 - 10:17am
Also, those opposed to lane expansion need to drive home on I-75 from up north on any given Sunday, as well as I-94 with the trucks between Jackson and Kalamazoo virtually any day of the week. If they remain opposed, it will be due solely to extraordinary good fortune.
Thu, 09/03/2015 - 10:23am
I have to agree with KG-1. Anyone familiar with the morning and evening commutes on that stretch of I-94 knows that you don't need a traffic study to see that it is dangerous and congested. I also wonder what great environmental concern exists along that stretch of road. Isn't there some environmental concern about a sea of automobiles idling in stalled traffic? It seems to me there are plenty of real environmental concerns that Mr. Schroeck would be better off spending his time on. And I'm still scratching my head about why MDOT would have some motive to move ahead with these projects other than out of safety concerns and relieving traffic congestion.
Thu, 09/03/2015 - 11:49am
I agree with KG-1. Listen to or watch traffic reports about I-94 and I-75 every weekday morning and every weekday evening, The congestion is awful and there seems to always be at least one accident if not more. I am not a proponent of wasting money, but the congestion needs to be alleviated. Analysis and studies are all well and good, but what is the reality? Driving I-94 and I-75 on weekdays during rush hour is horrendous and I emphasize with those who travel these roads everyday. Plus these are interstate highways. Many travelers utilize them besides those from the Metro Detroit area.
Thu, 09/03/2015 - 12:19pm
Mr, Schroeck, where will all those tens of millions of electric and solar cars that are supposed to be sold fit in the future? I-94 is part of the Bill Clinton NAFTA highway! It is a major link to and from the new 'Detroit-Windsor' bridge. It is considered a 'strategic' highway and part of national security, like the new bridge. Better address the concerns with your Federal Government. Perhaps more interest in an EPA polluted river out west would be a good focus. I'm weary of and smell NIMBY, BANANA, NIMD, NITL, NOPE, NOT, CAVEman and certainly SLAPP. Just Google it all or, http://www.planetizen.com/node/152 Pedestrians? The only one I saw was walking a Unicorn. The future? What if there is a new sense and economic return to the USA? One that is real with new leadership letting things return to the old normal, not the resented new one. When traffic is double or triple today. OMG! A burgeoning economy with true very low unemployment and transportation being ever more important. Where will all these folks drive? They will not use trains or light rail or buses or bicycles or walk. Those are very susceptible to criminal activity unlike in a locked car traveling at 55 MPH on a expressway among many others. Check the crime stats. Let's get back to a Mackinaw Straits pipeline leak that's never happened. Without the 'What if' crisis's you would be unemployed and irrelevant like so many you wish to oppress with administrative tyranny.
Thu, 09/03/2015 - 4:27pm
Schroeck said. “Really, all we’re saying is, let’s be smart about this. I don’t think that’s a real fringe opinion.” I wonder if anyone that disagrees with him could meet his definition of 'smart.' I wonder if he has criteria he uses to make his choice of support or opposition. I wonder if he would share those criteria. I wonder if he is fearful others could use those criteria finding ways to address the criteria while still taking actions, building roads, that he opposes.
Thu, 09/03/2015 - 4:50pm
It's interesting how all of these comments are from people who live outside of the city. As someone who lives in Detroit, by choice, I can say that I do not wish to see our community further divided by more freeways and service drives. We can't expect the quality of life in Detroit to improve if we're always making decisions based on what's best for people who drive through the City but don't have to live with those choices every day. We have to ask the question of who does this project benefit most, and who does it hurt? It would seem to me that it's largely for the benefit of those outside of city, but the majority of the downsides (increased traffic, speeding on service drives, increased pollution, decreased walkability and bikeability) are borne by Detroiters. Let's learn from lessons of I-75 and I-375 destroying Poletown and Black Bottom respectively and not make the same mistakes again.
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 7:53pm
I-75 destroying Poletown??? Exactly where do you claim to live again?
Andy Evans
Thu, 09/03/2015 - 7:25pm
I-94 ?? Could use around 20 lanes. Each way. Clear over to Chicago !! ;-)
Thu, 09/03/2015 - 7:45pm
Why do these environmental idiots have anything to say about this? Ignore them and get on with it. This is exactly the reason everything in the U.S. is coming to a stop. In case we haven't noticed, China probably just constructed a half dozen hospitals, a few airports and a dozen bridges while we fret and twiddle our thumbs. ENOUGH!
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 10:27am
I don't understand how so many have adopted the belief that our road system should be designed to allow free-flowing traffic anytime of day or night. A great quote that highlights the ridiculousness of this expectation from economist Joe Cortright: "No one would expect to Starbucks to build enough locations—and hire enough baristas—so that everyone could enjoy the 15 second order times [at 9 a.m.] that you can experience when there’s a lull [at 9 p.m.]. Consumers are smart enough to understand that if you want a coffee the same time as everyone else, you’re probably going to have to queue up for a few minutes."
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 8:03pm
That's because it is exactly what the freeways were originally designed to do when Eisenhower signed off on the idea (which he picked up while in Germany during WWII): Move large amounts of manpower and equipment quickly during war time or a national emergency.
John Q.
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 10:50pm
Which has nothing to do with your morning commute.
John Q.
Tue, 09/08/2015 - 3:04pm
Really? This has to be satire. No one thinks so much of themselves that they equate the need to not sit in traffic on their commute with the importance of a response to a terrorist attack? What a joke.
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 5:08am
I'm flattered that you think that it is all about me, but at last check (i.e. 2010 US Census numbers), there was something like over 3.8-million people living in the Tri-County area around Detroit. . When the fit hits the shan, I highly doubt that most of that number would even give two shakes what an aggrieved de-growther thinks about the "need" for a long overdue freeway expansion.
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 2:12pm
Many cities have tried to widen their highways to reduce congestion. It's never worked. Wider roads simply induce more traffic. This is a proven fact and for MDOT to claim otherwise is laughable. Just ask LA.
John S.
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 2:49pm
Since the enactment of NEPA, federal district judges have tended to look at procedural rather than substantive issues. A judge won't ask whether or not the I-94 project makes sense or not; he or she will just ask whether or not the NEPA rules were followed. Judges don't want to second guess the decisions of administrative agencies.
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 2:54pm
It is absolutely inevitable that gasoline will cost $6/gal and some point in the future. We are incredibly "lucky" as a nation to have subsidized our fuel consumption and externalized those costs so that our gas prices are among the lowest in the world ... but it is impossible that our below market rates will last forever. Experts vary in their forecasts, but its reasonable to assume that gas prices will at least double in the next 5-6 years. Could be sooner, and it could be more than a doubling of prices. When that happens, it will have a huge rippling effect on the economy, on driving patterns, on housing and job choices. When gas hits above $6/gal, driving will seriously decrease. It already happened when gas started spiking over $4.25/gal. Commuters will face a big rise in fuel costs, and many will want to telecommute (if possible). Employees will look for jobs closer to home, if possible. The comments posted here all ( in favor of big road expansion ) reflect auto-dependent commuters who live in the suburbs and work in the city. As I stated, that will decrease when the cost of driving dramatically increases. It is fiscally irresponsible short-term foolishness to invest in new 4 and 5 land highways in each direction.
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 4:44pm
Bman, Why are you so sure cost is the decider for using cars? Have you considered how much freedom a car gives us? Have you considered how much we might pay for that freedom? I think it we need to better understand what a car does for us when we can choose where it takes us and when it takes us and even how it takes us.
Jerry DeMaire
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 3:33pm
No one seems to be discussing new traffic control systems and drivers-less vehicles. If, (a big if), that happens the roads are projected to handle more vehicles in the same lanes as the ("speed and slam on brakes) crowd will be neutralized.
John Q.
Fri, 09/04/2015 - 10:51pm
The people at MDOT still don't get it. People moving to Midtown aren't going to need I-94 for commuting. They're moving into the city so they don't have to deal with driving in from the suburbs.
Wed, 01/09/2019 - 11:00am

Planning for 2050 traffic by spending billions to increase capacity is idiotic. Self driving cars should greatly reduce the number of accidents/crashes well before then. Changes in employment due to automation and remote work, and home delivery of goods, will continue to decrease the amount of miles driven per capita. This is a waste of money to benefit consultants, politicians, construction companies, and unions.