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?
Published: January 16, 2013
“We have been working really closely with the non-motorized folks too,” Stepanski says, pointing out the plan’s intent to include 2-foot-wide bike lanes and 6-foot-wide sidewalks along the service roads.
Michael Boettcher, project manager for the Detroit-based nonprofit group Transportation Riders United, agrees there are some benefits to be gained from the upgraded service drives, but is skeptical of the project’s overall worth.
“There are elements of the project we believe could benefit travelers as well as surrounding neighborhoods along the impacted corridor, such as the proposed continuous service drives at the I-94/M-10 interchange, and enhanced pedestrian crossings at other locations,” Boettcher says. “But the current $1.8 billion price tag outweighs the benefits of a project largely designed to get cars and trucks through, not into, the city of Detroit slightly more quickly.”
MDOT’s process for the project has already included multiple studies in preparation for beginning the work on the freeway. Stepanski says the department has commenced yet another one: this time, on the actual logistics of completing such a large-scale project in the extremely busy area.
“We completed a detailed engineering design – we got our environmental clearance [from the Federal Highway Administration] in 2005,” Stepanski says. The purpose of the current study is to put “meat on the bones of the conceptual plan.”
One of the biggest concerns about closing parts of the busiest stretch of a highway that cuts through downtown Detroit is the immediate travel problems presented for those who come into the city each day for work. Stepanski says MDOT’s doing what it can to minimize construction’s impact on motorists.
“We certainly don’t want to shut the city of Detroit down,” he says, adding that they’ve now invited contractors to offer advice on how to build the project in a timelier fashion.
The hope, Stepanski says, is to reduce the projected cost from its current $1.8 billion to $1.5 billion, and to slash the time frame from 20 years to just four, with the goal to begin work in early 2015.
“The reason the project was planned to take 20 years to build was not due to construction time frames, but cash flow,” Stepanski says. “Based on the amount of money that MDOT has to contribute to the project, it would take 20 years to pay for. MDOT is currently exploring ways to enhance the financing of the project and also the feasibility of using innovative procurement methods … that could result in drastically reduced time frames.”
But there is a huge “if” in all this: MDOT can’t actually start work until it can prove funding for the entire project is locked in. Stepanski says 90 percent of the costs would be covered by the federal government. Of the remaining 10 percent, the state would pony up most of the money, but the city of Detroit, by law, must cover 12.5 percent of the state’s cost (1.25 percent of the project’s total cost). Under current estimates, that puts the city’s share of the project at $22.5 million.
On the surface, the prospect of a city that has a projected budget deficit this year of nearly $350 million finding that sort of cash is something MDOT would have to consider in discussions regarding the project’s funding. “Public Act 51 of 1951 calls for the city of Detroit to contribute 12.5 percent of the cost of the state portion of the work,” Stepanski says. “It would take legislation to change that.”
But the city claims the problems it currently faces with its general fund won’t be an impediment to the project getting started.
“The city receives gasoline and weight tax monies annually through State Act 51 to maintain its roads,” says Ron Brundidge, director of Detroit’s Department of Public Works. “This funding source will be utilized to pay the city’s portion of the project. Therefore, the present financial challenges that exist will not prevent the city from being able to support this important infrastructure project.”
Of course, much has changed in Detroit since this project was first proposed nearly 20 years ago. Among other things is the resurgence of Midtown in recent years. The potential harm the project could have on this part of the city is just one of the reasons critics are calling into question the wisdom of MDOT’s continued support of the expansion.
Since the skeleton for the project was established two decades ago, MDOT has held more than 100 meetings to gather public input. As might be expected with any undertaking of this magnitude, not everyone is going to be on board, no matter what is done to mitigate concerns, Stepanski says.
“We’ve done the best job we could,” he said.
But it’s not just a few progress-hating cranks raising concerns.
Transportation Riders United, a long-established group dedicated to the cause of improving public transit, issued a scathing 53-page report in response to the environmental impact study completed for the project in 2004.
The group’s biggest concern is focused on the planned demolition of overpasses in the Midtown neighborhood, TRU’s Boettcher says.
“We’re very concerned about the removal of the Third [Street] and John R [Street] bridges … particularly given the growth in and around Midtown,” he writes in an email. “The fewer physical connections there are between those areas on both sides of I-94, the greater psychological barriers there will be to spin off development and the greater physical separation, making it harder for people to cross the interstate at all by car or on foot.”
So by widening the freeway, I-94 would creep deeper into Midtown, and, essentially, cap it off from the New Center district at a time when the area is about to enjoy a spillover effect from the economic upswing the former Cass Corridor is currently enjoying.
Stepanski says MDOT has taken note of the burst of economic activity in Midtown and says he has frequently been in discussion with Wayne State University, Henry Ford Hospital and the College for Creative Studies — all of which are located in the area.
> Email Ryan Felton