DETROIT—The pleas of citizens and the objections of several municipal leaders weren’t enough this week to derail contentious plans to widen two Metro Detroit expressways. The General Assembly of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments voted Thursday to approve expansions of I-75 and I-94 as part of their new short-term and long-term transportation plans.
SEMCOG is a regional board made up of municipal representatives from seven Southeast Michigan counties. During their Thursday meeting, the group’s general assembly decided by a 54 to 12 vote to authorize a $36 billion 2040 Regional Transportation Plan that included the expansion projects. It also approved an accompanying 2014-17 Transportation Improvement Plan. A motion by Detroit City Council Member Gary Brown to send the expressway widening provisions back to committee was defeated in a 14 to 51 vote.
The I-75 and I-94 expansions are part of a roughly $2.7 billion effort by the Michigan Department of Transportation to renovate the expressways. The roadwork would impact a 6.7 mile area of I-94 between I-96 and Connor in Detroit and an expanse of I-75 between 8 Mile and M-59 in Oakland County. SEMCOG’s approval will make it easier for MDOT, which is currently taking a pay-as-you-go approach to the projects, to secure federal funding.
Opponents of the projects voiced their discontent during a boisterous rally preceding SEMCOG’s afternoon meeting at the Athenium Suite Hotel in Detroit. Claire Nowak-Boyd, 29, who studies urban planning and economics at Wayne State was one of about 25 people participating in the protest.
“They’re saying the I-94 expansion will save you 90 seconds [of travel time], which is a pretty marginal benefit,” she told Mode Shift. “Meanwhile the neighborhoods where the highways are being built are going to bear the brunt of this.”
Citizens also turned out in force to speak out at a lengthy public comment period during the meeting. Dozens voiced their opinions, including members of the Sierra Club, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and Transportation Riders United; none favored the highway expansions. Many, like Nowak-Boyd, objected to the toll they could take on local communities.
Members of the Detroit Sound Conservancy expressed concerns that a building that once housed United Sound Systems, a studio that recorded tracks by musical legends like John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Funkadelic and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, would be destroyed by the I-94 renovation.
A teacher from Ellen Thompson Elementary, a Detroit charter school slated for partial demolition as part of the project, said news of these plans had brought many of her students to tears. Others spoke out against how the projects would remove pedestrian bridges, increase pollution, impede bicycle and pedestrian travel, and stifle economic development.
More than 100 people submitted comments to Mode Shift in a statement that was read at the meeting.
“It's been shown again and again that adding lanes doesn't reduce congestion -- it worsens it. Invest that money in solutions that actually take cars off the road -- and reduce congestion,” read one of these comments by Bonnie Wessler.
Lately, opposition to the the expressway projects has moved beyond citizen groups to include institutions like Wayne State University and local and county governments. The city councils of Hazel Park, Ferndale and Detroit and the Washtenaw County Commission all recently issued declarations opposing the expansions.
Several leaders from these communities, who are also members of SEMCOG, spoke up at the meeting.
“This plan will totally wipe out businesses and residents, which means more lost revenue more lost population, more lost housing capacity,” Hazel Park Mayor Jack Lloyd said of the I-75 widening. “This is a lose-lose plan for our city.”
In an effort to persuade SEMCOG members to vote for the upgrades, MDOT officials gave a presentation responding to what they said were myths about the projects and touting their potential benefits.
“We have identified these two projects as our highest priorities in coming years,” said Greg Johnson. “This is not just a regional look at these two projects. We recognize they have statewide as well as national and international significance.”
Spokesmen for the state agency argued the renovations are needed to address safety hazards posed by crumbling bridges and aging infrastructure. They added that the projects would spur the regional economy by creating jobs and increasing the flow of trade. In response to Brown’s amendment, An MDOT official told the gathering removing the widenings from their plans would jeopardize federal funds.
Despite the outcome of SEMCOG’s Thursday votes, Detroit City Council member Gary Brown has vowed to keep up the effort to modify the expressway renovation plans.
“Although @SEMCOG transportation plan approved, I'm committed to encouraging reconsideration of I-94 expansion due to quality of life impact.” he said in tweet Friday, a job unclear whether it will be helped or hindered by today's appointment as deputy emergency manager for the City of Detroit.
Brown and other opponents of the projects may still have at least one avenue open to them.
Robert Morosi, an MDOT spokesman, told Mode Shift in a prior interview that the plans could theoretically still be changed. The state transportation agency would have to put forth an amendment to modify projects, which would be considered by SEMCOG during one of three special yearly amendment sessions.
Citizens interested in sending letters to MDOT can address them to the State Transportation Building, 425 W. Ottawa St., P.O. Box 30050, Lansing, MI 48909.