DETROIT--Although plans to widen the I-94 and I-75 expressways have been generating a bit of a buzz this week, dissenting voices seemed to have little sway over the bulk of the Southeast Michigan Council of Government's Executive Committee. At a Friday meeting, the body voted 24-7 to approve a measure that will allow the controversial projects and a similar expansion of US-23 to move ahead. A weighted voted, taking regional population distribution into consideration, tallied in at 1340-385.
This affirmative vote updates a regional transportation plan okayed by SEMCOG this past summer that had already included the I-94 and I-75 renovations. Michigan's Department of Transportation, which is spearheading the reconstruction of the expressways, brought the amendment measure before the Executive Committee.
It will allow the purchase of right-of-way land for the renovations and pay for additional staff to work on project development. The changes also will allow for the addition of a new shoulder along US-23 in Livingston County. Also included in the amendment were a number of unrelated issues including incorporation of M-1 Rail into SEMCOG's Transportation Improvement Plan and the establishment of a bike path along M-5.
An alternative amended proposal that would have postponed any action on the three highway expansions while approving other elements of the measure was rejected by the same margins.
As with this past summer's SEMCOG general assembly where the I-75 and I-94 projects first became a part of the region's transportation planning, citizens and other stakeholders packed into available seats to share their views against the road projects during a public comment period.
Among these speakers was Royal Oak Commissioner Mike Fournier, who sponsored a resolution passed by the city objecting to the amendment measure earlier this week.
"Royal Oak would have to contribute more than double what our annual budget is for roads and streets just to support ... our portion of this," he said. "We're going to have to choose between public safety for roads that are in disrepair or tax our residents that are already taxed enough."
In response to concerns like these from cities obligated by state law to provide matching funds for the projects that would receive little to no benefit from the renovations, the executive committee voted on another item that could offer them some financial relief. It called for SEMCOG to work with the state legislature to amend Michigan's Act 51, which governs state road funding, so that the state would provide matching funding for state road projects. That motion passed 24-2.
Also taking part in the comment session was Richard Murphy, a board member with Southeast Michigan's Regional Transit Agency and Program Director for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. He said the expansions ran counter to the RTA's goal of putting in place an effective regional transit system and that their cumulative impact would "hinder" established communities' "efforts at placemaking and community revitalization."
During the executive committee's discussion of the regional transportation plan amendment, several members spoke strongly against removing items related to the highway widenings. One of these was Commissioner Jeffrey Jencks of Huntington Woods, who had reversed positions after voting against the widenings back in June.
"There will be an international bridge that during the next three to four years will come through here. When it does, some of the traffic will go north; some of the traffic will go south," he said. "Detroit, Hamtramck, Hazel Park, Madison Heights, adjacent to I-75 especially, will have opportunities to take unused facilities to use them in a better way."
Dan O'Leary, Chair of SEMCOG's Transportation Advisory Council, indirectly addressed a recent request by a community coalition demanding an additional study for the widening of I-94, known as a supplemental environmental impact statement. That coalition, which includes groups like MOSES and EMEAC, says more consideration is needed of potential environmental hazards and the impact the project would have on poor people and people of color living in the surrounding neighborhoods.
"An inter-agency working group, comprised of SEMCOG, MDOT, the EPA, the FHWA and FTA, have reviewed the proposed amendments and determined that all of these projects have already been analyzed for air quality conformity as part of the SEMCOG 2040 Regional Transportation Program and that the changes that are being proposed do not change the scope of these projects or the projected date that they are open to traffic, therefore a new conformity analysis is not needed. The environmental justice review indicates the impacts related to implementations of the TIP remain balanced across our region," he said.
Even though MDOT now has approval to begin these initial phases of the I-94, I-75 and US-23 renovations, at least two potential obstacles remain.
One is the threat of litigation by the coalition requesting the supplemental environmental study of I-94, which they say falls under the jurisdiction of the National Environmental Policy Act. The other is resistance from Michigan's state legislature.
Among the more prominent speakers during the afternoon's comment period was State Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak). Referring to the expressway widenings as a throwback to outdated 1960s planning that endangered the regional economy, he pledged to take action to halt the three widening projects.
"I'm going to do everything I can in my power with my colleagues to stop these projects," he said. "Right up into defunding these projects, inserting language in our transportation legislation to bar state funds from being used in these projects."