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Coalition Request Could Halt I-94 Widening

 DETROIT— UPDATE posted on Dec. 3 includes response from MDOT.

Michigan's Department of Transportation has made the reconstruction and widening of I-94 in Detroit one of its top priorities, but it may not be time just yet for the agency to get out the orange cones and construction hats.

The I-94 project was met with vocal public opposition this past summer when it and similar proposal for I-75 were approved by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. Now an alliance of community organizations and individuals opposed to the project as it stands is taking action to temporarily halt MDOT’s plans to renovate the highway between Connor Avenue and I-96.

Today, the coalition, which includes the East Michigan Environmental Action Council and the social justice group, Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, and other organisations, intends to send a letter to MDOT and the Federal Highway Administration formally requesting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the widening effort.

The request raises concerns about the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which was approved in 2004 and relies on some information dating back to 1994. It also alleges that the traffic projections the project is based on are inaccurate.

Details from the letter will be revealed at a Monday press conference sponsored by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center at Wayne State's Damon Keith Law Center Dec. 2 at 2:30 p.m.

"We're simply asking that they conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement to fix the flaws in the EIS to make sure they appropriately consider environmental concerns as well as environmental justice concerns." Nick Schroeck, the law center’s executive director told Mode Shift.

"Basically what we want is to have them go back and look at whether or not the project as it was conceived ten, twelve years ago needs to be constructed in that same fashion and whether or not there are alternatives that are less harmful to the environment and to the community."

Schroeck contends that issues like climate change were not taken into account when the study was conducted and that the data on which the freeway project rests on has changed substantially over the last decade.

One of the most dramatic of these shifts has been Southeast Michigan’s population. The region lost nearly 116,000 people between 2004 and 2010, according to data from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

Another change has been estimates for Vehicle Miles Traveled, the total number of miles driven by all vehicles within a given time period and geographic area.

Using SEMCOG data from 2003, the FEIS project calculated the regions’ VMT would rise by 11.4 percent by 2025, however, since that time the regions VMT has actually fallen by 13.99 percent.

According to Schroeck, new developments like M-1 Rail, the addition of a charter school to the project area and the establishment of a regional transit authority also need to be considered, as does the impact the project on poor people and people of color.

Although the FEIS noted that the original construction of I-94 in the 1950s has had a disproportionate effect on minorities and low-income people, it concluded this would not be the case with the widening.

However, Schroeck and others involved with the request believe that issues like air pollution and the removal of pedestrian bridges in a city with a population that is nearly 90 percent people of color requires a more thorough analysis.

“For too long, we’ve been wiping out communities to widen highways that drive us farther apart, while denying people decent public transit,” says Joel Batterman, policy coordinator for MOSES, said in a release. “It’s about time the state weighed the full consequences of this policy.”

In an email to Mode Shift, he expressed his hope that the state of Michigan would “slow down” and take another look at the project. MDOT, however, has indicated that it actually wants to speed up the construction process from around 20 years to five.

Batterman also noted that a Wisconsin-based affiliate of his group, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, recently won a court battle over a widening of I-94 in their state. In that case the judge decided that Wisconsin needed to assess the impact on transit-dependent residents and suburban sprawl before moving ahead with that project.

Schroeck told Mode Shift that the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and others involved with the request hope to avoid litigation.

Although MDOT has been reaching out to stakeholders to get more feedback on the project, Schroeck believes its best to handle concerns about the I-94 widening through a process that’s in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

“What we’re trying to do is make this a formal request,” he said, “because that is a public and transparent and open process where people will have the ability to submit comments. There’ll be a public meeting requirement. We want this this done in a public manner.”

MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi told Mode Shift in an email that his agency had "no official comment at this time" regarding the letter.

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