No Funds for Freeway Expansion Project

DETROIT—The future of two controversial Metro Detroit expressway projects will be determined Thursday when the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments General Assembly gathers to vote on upcoming transportation plans for the region.

Michigan’s Department of Transportation needs the body’s approval to move forward with proposed renovations of the I-75 and I-94 expressways. Despite a combined price tag of about $2.7 billion, however, the projects’ financing is still up in the air.

“Right now the funding is a stumbling block,” Robert Morosi, a Southeast Michigan MDOT spokesman tells Mode Shift. “At this point in time, with our limited funding and really the uncertainty of funding ... we are looking at a pay-as-you-go approach.”

The I-94 project would widen about 6.7 miles of roadway between I-96 and Connor in Detroit, adding new lanes, service drives and interchanges. Plans for the I-75 renovation would repair and expand an area of freeway running from 8 Mile to M-59 in Oakland County. MDOT also wants to remove and replace bridges along the expressways.

The agency sees the proposed renovations as a smart move that will increase safety on the road by replacing and modernizing outdated infrastructure; for others, however, MDOT’s plans have been a source of contention. Concerned that money for widening roads would be better spent maintaining infrastructure, the Washtenaw County Commission earlier this month issued a resolution in opposition to the I-94 expansion.

In Detroit, some critics fear that the I-94 project would hamper pedestrian and bike traffic, while others worry it could stifle development along a thriving economic corridor.

Even if SEMCOG approves the projects, it could be some time before their full impact is felt. Under ideal conditions, the agency would like to wrap up the renovations in five years or less, but concerns about funding could push that completion time to 20 years.

Road construction in Michigan is financed with a combination of state gasoline taxes and federal transportation funds. Morosi says an increase in fuel-efficient cars on the road and rising gas prices have cut into Michigan’s gasoline revenues. To complicate matters, the state needs to raise at least 20 percent of the money for its roadwork programs itself to qualify for federal dollars. Michigan has had difficulty doing that in recent years, so the state legislature has had to step in and reallocate dollars from the state’s general fund to transportation.

They budgeted $120 million to do this for the 2014 fiscal year, according to Morosi, but this is no guarantee that the I-75 and I-94 projects will begin anytime soon.

“We got 2014, but beyond that we don’t know. There’s so much uncertainty, and that’s why it’s so difficult,” he says. “We can not come out and say, ‘This is when it will start,’ because at this point in time we’re still working to get the revenue to leverage that federal aid.”

Although Morosi wouldn’t speculate on when the projects might begin, he says replacing bridges, including one at Gratiot over I-94, would be among the agency’s first priorities. He adds that there is “no way” any freeway would be “ripped up” for the proposed Detroit project in 2014.

In order for that to happen, the state would need to come up with a stable revenue stream to support the expressway expansions. That would require an act of the legislature like the gas tax hike proposed by Gov. Snyder or a reallocation of the state’s transportation dollars.

“We’re going to have to find a way to advance some money to build this project,” Morosi says, “at the expense of other projects, maybe. Take money from different regions, maybe. Those are all things on the table that we’re looking at.”

The General Assembly of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments will convene on Thursday, June 20, at 4:30 p.m. in the Atheneum Suite Hotel at 1000 Brush St. in Detroit. Stakeholders are invited to make their voices heard during a public comment session following an opening address by Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano.

 

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