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.”
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.