by Edmund Zagorin and Timothy Boscarino
Imagine you return home one day to find construction beginning on a major highway expansion in your neighborhood. Properties are being torn down, huge piles of earth and gravel are being pushed around by bulldozers, and the pedestrian bridges you’ve used for years are marked for demolition. Your neighbors tell you that it may take two years before the project is finally finished. This is the reality that many Detroiters may wake up to in the coming years if the planned I-94 expansion continues to move forward. The thing is, almost no one knows about it.
That’s because there hasn’t been much public outreach done on the project since the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was completed in 2005. The EIS is the oversight process that all major infrastructure projects have to complete before applying for federal funds, and it includes public health and environmental justice as well as ecological concerns. “If you came to the city after 2005 when the public outreach virtually stopped, what would your wherewithal be to find out about it?” asks Hannah Kelley, a former Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) planner and activist. She charges that the highway expansion has been planned with the bare minimum of community engagement.
The problem with such a prolonged approval process is that Detroit has hardly stood still since 2005. People and businesses have moved, and abandoned buildings have been repurposed or rebuilt. For example, one of the planned demolition areas appears to include part of the property that currently hosts a new multimillion dollar facility of University Preparatory Academy, one of Detroit’s best-performing schools. The campus, located on Holden in the city’s New Center area, hadn’t opened yet when the aerial photographs used in the EIS were taken.
“Despite inquiries, I have received no invitation to participate in discussions with MDOT [Michigan Department of Transportation] or the city about the current route plan or alternate routes,” says Doug Ross, founder of University Prep. He added, “That’s troubling, given that the plans currently involve the property of one of our elementary schools.”
Of course, that’s not the only thing that’s changed since 2005. A new generation of Detroiters increasingly favors bikes to cars, and thirsts for a truly functional public transit system. This throws a curveball to city planners drafting from blueprints thick with Henry Ford’s legacy. However, for many of these new Motor City residents, yesteryear’s dream of private car ownership has turned into a nightmare of rising gas prices and polluting vehicle emissions. As Kelley says, “This project is moving the city in the wrong direction. To invest this much money as we’re starving our bus system… it’s irresponsible. People lament all the time; ‘If only we could just bring back the streetcar! Why did we ever cover up the tracks in the first place?'”
On the other hand, no one likes sitting in interstate traffic. Traffic congestion costs time and labor, as well as slowing the flow of freight shipments from Canada. Terry Stepanski, project manager and engineer for MDOT argues that the project will address both of these concerns head-on. “Studies have identified sections of highway most in need of work, and that section comes up as one of the most in-need in the state,” notes Stepanski. He’s also concerned about Detroiters’ lack of access to cars, and argues that expanding continuous service roads will allow for expanded bus transit routes, as well as adding bike lanes and sidewalks.
Stepanski estimates the total cost of the project at $1.4 – $1.8 billion, but said that “the budget is still fluid.” He added, “We haven’t identified any funding source yet for the project.” If the project is built, eighty percent of the funding would come from federal aid, and twenty from the State of Michigan. Of that twenty percent of non-federal funding, legislation requires that the city of Detroit pony up 12.5%, or what ends up as 2.5% of the total project fund. The most conservative estimate would put the city’s commitment at around $35 million. That’s a lot of money, especially for a city that perennially experiences difficulty balancing its checkbook. However, Stepanski argues that it’s a good deal for Detroit given that the easing congestion will speed commutes for all of the city’s residents.
Kelley disagrees. “This project is going to be major construction on I-94 for literally years. Who knows if you’ll ever make up that travel time lost by shutting down the freeway with the eventual widening of the freeway?” However, it is clear that the focus of the project is on regional and national economic development, rather than the development of Detroit’s urban communities. It is this clash of local and regional transportation systems over scarce public funds which elicits so much outrage. “This project is not for people who live in the city,” says Kelley. “It’s just not.”
To find out more about the I-94 expansion, visit MDOT’s project website: http://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9621_11058_53088_53115—,00.html
or Hannah Kelley’s blog with different resources on the project: http://detroittransportation.wordpress.com/