MDOT Gives Lukewarm Response to I-94 Review Request

DETROIT—A coalition asking for a special environmental review that would temporarily halt a planned renovation and widening of I-94 by Michigan's Department of Transportation has received an answer from the agency. Perhaps it's more accurate to say they sort of received an answer, though, as MDOT's letter essentially says it's looking into the validity of the request without formally refusing or committing to it.

Last month, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center mailed the letter to MDOT, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and the Federal Highway Administration asking for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the I-94 project on behalf of a local alliance that includes Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, the transit group Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, the Michigan Environmental Council, the North End-Woodward Community Coalition and other groups.

"We're mainly concerned that they're not saying, 'Yes, we'll do the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,' they're saying they'll continue to reevaluate the project as they go forward," said Nick Schroeck, GLELC's executive director. "So it's always good to have this dialogue and kind of set up the conversation, but we're looking for more."

Under the auspices of the National Environmental Policy Act, stakeholders can request a supplemental statement to take into consideration significant changes to a federally-funded project which have taken place after an initial Environmental Impact Statement. The coalition believes MDOT's plans to renovate the highway between Connor Avenue and I-96 in Detroit need to take into account changes to the local population and economy, regional driving behavior, carbon emissions and climate change and other factors not considered in the original 2004 EIS or three prior reevaulations to the project.

Earlier this month, GLELC received a response from MDOT Director Kirk Steudle postmarked Jan. 10. In the letter, Steudle said MDOT would be working with the FHWA and other state an federal agencies to assess the "validity [of the request] and determine if the preparation of a supplemental EIS is warranted."

"The re-evaluation process will consider the points made in your letter, as well as any other new information, regulations, or requirements," Steudle wrote. "MDOT is hiring a consultant with national experience on large projects, such as I-94, to review the current conditions and impacts including population trends and traffic patterns."

The FHWA responded to the coalition's request last month in a letter dated Dec. 23. In the document, the agency's Major Projects Manager Ryan Rizzo said a reevalutation would need to be completed before the FHWA granted any further approvals on the project, and that it would "then rely on the written evaluation to determine the need for a supplemental EIS."

SEMCOG, which authorized the I-94 renovation last summer and approved some changes to the project more recently, responded to GLELC's letter last month as well, saying they were aware of the request for a supplemental EIS, but that the decision didn't fall under their jursidiction.

Schroeck said he's glad that MDOT and the FHWA have responded to the letters and that he looks forward to working with the two organizations in the coming months, but remains committed to the coalition's original request.

"We're still very firm in our belief that a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement should be prepared, that they should go through that entire process. But we're encouraged by the fact that they seem to be willing to discuss the project with us going forward and to work with the community on ensuring it fits their needs," he said.

According to Schroek, the coalition of groups behind the SEIS request will be meeting soon to discuss their next steps, but they'd "like to allow some time for that to play out without having to march into court and file a lawsuit."

While MDOT has not been pursuing an additional EIS for the I-94 project on its own, they have been soliciting stakeholder input on the redesign of I-94 for several months. As for the hiring of a consultant to evaluate the need for a supplemental analysis, MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi siad the agency is now "in the process of finalizing the scope of services for the contract."

It will be several more weeks before MDOT will advertise the contract and interview prospective firms for the job. Morosi didn't have an exact date for when a consultant would be hired, but he believes one will be in place by early spring.

In regards to the larger issue of a supplemental EIS, Morosi said MDOT's "letter speaks for itself."

"We have met federal requirements by performing re-evaluations of the EIS regarding the recently completed Van Dyke Avenue overpass above I-94, the recently completed design of the Gratiot Avenue overpass, and will begin construction this year on replacing Woodward over I-94," he added. "We are operating within the confines of the law and in a good faith effort on issues raised by local officials, stakeholders and the community."

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What do you think of these efforts to halt the project? SHould GLELC go straight to court, or be patient and work with MDOT through the process?

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