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Cover Story

A highway runs through it

Is it really a good idea to spend $1.8 billion expanding a 6.7-mile stretch of I-94 in Detroit?

Photo: Robert Nixon, License: N/A

Robert Nixon

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Robert Nixon

MDOT’s expansion plan calls for removing overpasses that link Midtown and New Center.


Imagine: It’s four in the afternoon and you’re traveling eastbound on the Edsel Ford Freeway, commonly known as Interstate 94, from Dearborn to Mount Clemens after a long day at the office. You’re eager to get home and sit down at the kitchen table for a nice dinner. But, as you approach the Interstate 75 interchange in Detroit you begin to slow down. Traffic is starting to build up. You attempt to weave your way through the parade of vehicles, but there’s no way around the growing jam. It is rush hour and you are stuck.

That’s not exactly a unique scenario. For decades, commuters have been dealing with a stretch of I-94 that clogs badly during rush hour.

For 20 years now, the Michigan Department of Transportation has said it wants to alleviate the problem. A plan that’s been in the works since 1992 — dubbed the I-94 Rehabilitation Project — would add one lane in each direction along a 6.7-mile stretch of the freeway between I-96 and Conner Avenue, installing continuous service roads to accommodate local traffic along both sides of the freeway and eliminating left-lane entrance and exit ramps. MDOT says the project would drastically relieve congestion for the 160,000 drivers who use the Ford each day.

And the $1.8 billion project could finally become a reality.

But is it really a good idea?

Critics of the proposal say no. What they see is a boondoggle that will do more harm than good, threatening the burgeoning recovery of areas such as Midtown while pouring public money into an outdated and ineffective 1950s-style auto-centric transportation model when it should be considering new ways to address a decades-old problem.

Creation of the Edsel Ford Freeway was first outlined in a 1944 federal report titled “Interregional Highways.” The study, conducted by the National Interregional Highway Committee, proposed a limited access freeway between Detroit and Chicago.

Construction of the stretch between I-96 and Conner that MDOT now wants to expand began in 1947 and was completed in 1958, at a cost of $110 million. It became the second link in the city’s expressway system, with part of the John C. Lodge Expressway (M-10) already in use.

As explained by a 1954 brochure from the state highway department (cited at length in the environmental impact study conducted as part of the expansion project currently being proposed), the two roadways brought the region immense benefit:

“The Edsel Ford and John C. Lodge expressways will relieve greatly the present serious traffic congestion problem in the metropolitan area … reducing travel time and eliminating inconvenience and discomfort that go with driving on heavily congested streets. Because of the limited access features and elimination of cross traffic, it will be possible to drive safely on the expressways at speeds much greater than is possible on main traffic thoroughfares. … The expressways will add to the beauty of the city, will speed workers from homes to factories and return, and shoppers to and from the downtown area over the safest type of highway designed today.”

There was also a crippling downside for the city of Detroit that wasn’t foreseen when the freeways were first envisioned: Thanks in large part to a system that allowed those with cars to commute to jobs in the city, Detroit’s population began to fall, slowly at first, then accelerating as the exodus helped create a downward economic spiral. The more people left, the more the city’s tax revenues declined, leading to reductions in service and quality of life, and exacerbating growing social problems. Those deteriorating conditions prompted even more people to flee, forcing tax revenues even lower. On it went, helping bring the Motor City to where it is today, on the verge of bankruptcy.

Other factors — including, among other things, racism, federal housing policies and the decline of the American auto industry — certainly helped contribute to the city’s epic decline. But it’s also just as certain freeways are a significant part of the reason Detroit’s population plummeted from a high of nearly 1.9 million in the 1950s to what’s currently estimated to be about 700,000.

As for the congestion described in that brochure almost 60 years ago, it has moved from city surface streets to the highways — with the daily jams along I-94 among the region’s worst.

The way to correct that problem, contends MDOT, is to pour yet more cement.

Although it has been languishing for years, proponents contend that the I-94 expansion project is as badly needed as ever. For starters, as the narrator in a MDOT promotional video for the project titled “I-94: Roadway to Detroit’s Future” points out, the work will enable the freeway to comply with stricter federal highway standards that are currently in the works.

Beyond that, says MDOT senior project manager Terry Stepanski, is the prospect that the project will cut down on accidents along with relieving congestion.

“We continuously studied this section of the roadway and it is a part of the roadway that has a high amount of crashes,” Stepanski says. “We do know from data that we have that the result of the project will reduce the amount of crashes.”

That will be accomplished in part, he says, by constructing continuous service drives along the revamped stretch. The idea is that the service roads will help keep local traffic off the freeway. Constructing longer acceleration and deceleration lanes would play a role, as will new entrance and exit ramps. Stepanski says there was a definite decrease in traffic along I-94 when the national economy took a sharp downturn in 2008. But MDOT’s research shows that traffic along I-94 has picked back up recently as the area’s economy has improved, suggesting a need to make the road capable of handling a heavier load heading into the future.

For pedestrian traffic in the area of the project, Stepanski says bicyclists and pedestrians would benefit immensely from the expansion because MDOT plans to add sidewalks to the 67 overpasses it plans to reconstruct as part of the undertaking. The service drives would also be designed to accommodate bicycle traffic and foot traffic.

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