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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.


Leslie Smith, president and CEO of WSU’s TechTown — the research hub and business incubator that sits on the north side of I-94, opposite from the WSU main campus — says she hasn’t been directly included in discussions with MDOT.

However, she does sit on a Midtown steering committee that involves people who are in the loop. During a meeting in November, they took to discussing the proposed I-94 widening.

The consensus of the group, she says, is that the project is on shaky ground because of questions about funding. From her perspective, that’s a good thing.

Making plans for the TechTown district is already difficult because of I-94’s current configuration; the proposed changes, she says, would only exacerbate those problems.

“We’re going to have to combat that in our district design [if the project is implemented],” she says. “What’s most important are the gateways into the TechTown district, one of which is Cass and 94, so, widening [the freeway] would certainly make that more difficult.”

Smith, who was born and raised in Detroit, adds that she’s surprised these types of projects are still being pursued after so many years.

“To me, what’s interesting, when you think about the city of Detroit historically, you find the negative impacts the construction of the freeways have had more broadly,” she says. “I’m just not sure we think about the social implications of our actions.”

Smith’s point touches on a broader viewpoint of the project: The undertaking has created a vast number of concerns from a wide-ranging audience.

And although Stepanski says MDOT has made serious efforts to reduce the project’s negative effects, the current design would still result in a number of buildings being demolished. These include a recent add-on to University Prep Academy, a charter school located near the Fourth Street neighborhood.

As seen in the detailed maps of the project’s area in the environmental impact study, the proposed continuous service drive would take vehicles off I-94 and divert local traffic directly outside the charter school’s entrance. Students getting dropped off and picked up from school would be front and center to the overflow of local traffic MDOT expects to be shifted off the freeway and onto the surface streets.

University Prep Academy did not return requests for comment.

United Sound Studio on Second Avenue, the first independent recording studio in the country, would be on the chopping block. A soundtrack comprising tunes recorded at United Sound over its illustrious career would impress even the casual music fan: Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker and the MC5 have recorded classic cuts inside this cornerstone of Detroit’s musical past.

The air inside United Sound has been still since 2008; the studio’s massive expenses — its sheer size can attest to the fact — have proven to be too much to handle.

But a number of local guitar players came together last summer to record an Internet video asking viewers to help save United Sound. The central point touched on by each individual who spoke on camera was that the building was simply too important to tear down, no matter the studio’s disuse.

MDOT took into consideration the impact of leveling a building with such a rich history, one that influenced Detroit’s music long before the Motown sound ever registered on anyone’s radar. In the environmental impact statement, MDOT notes that for demolishing the building they intend to fund the costs of a documentary that would tell the story of the studio.

Stepanski says they do have “some latitude” in the conceptual design. So if the plan to include the teardown of United Sounds falls through, or some other impediment were to arise, the plans for the project could still be adjusted. But, he adds, any major changes would be cause for some serious re-evaluation.

Along with these concerns is an even more pointed question: Would the widening of I-94 even accomplish its primary goal of alleviating traffic jams? The answer — perhaps surprisingly — is  maybe not.

In the world of traffic engineering there is a phenomenon known as “induced demand.” In an opinion piece for the Detroit Free Press in 1999, Keith Schneider, former director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Benzie County’s Benzonia, explains it this way:

“Every 10-percent increase in road spaces generates a 10-percent increase in traffic within several years. … A road-dependent strategy leads to an expensive, self-perpetuating cycle: more and wider roads attract more cars and trucks, which increases congestion, which leads to more and wider roads and so on.”

And, he continues, in Michigan, the phenomenon is even more pronounced.

“Since 1943, when MDOT first unveiled its road-dominant transportation policy, the state has aggressively pursued highway construction as its chief goal, treating other means for moving people and goods as an afterthought. While public bus systems withered and commuter and passenger trains vanished, Michigan built a 10,000-mile state highway network and improved 109,000 miles of local roads.”

Stepanski says he gets the possible long-term outcomes of induced demand, but contends that the roadway needs improvement now.

“I certainly understand the concept of induced demand — if you make a better road it’s going to bring more people,” he says. “But the fact is, is it’s not just induced demand, there’s actual real demand out there. The roadway is operating currently at very congested levels during the peak traffic hours. So, it’s not just induced. I mean, sure there might be more traffic, but, there is the need for the roadway now.”

And while all parties seem to agree that I-94 needs serious maintenance, alleviating congestion is also still a main concern for MDOT.

“Our studies show the traffic volumes do justify it and that it’s operating at a congested state now, which is one of the reasons driving the need to widen it four lanes in each direction,” Stepanski says.

The Detroit Free Press wrote an editorial in 2002 arguing for rebuilding the freeway as-is, not widening it; and that other options could lead to reduced congestion.

“Widening would probably not be necessary on I-75, either, with improvements to local roads, better traffic management through technology, and a working mass transit system along the Woodward corridor,” wrote the Freep’s editors. “The widening plan reflects MDOT’s costly and often futile philosophy of building its way out of congestion. Road expansion projects, even widening existing roads, tend to trigger sprawl that just adds traffic.”

Legislation for a regional transit authority was successfully passed in Michigan’s lame-duck legislative session late last year, which is a good sign considering the promised federal funding for multiple transit-oriented projects was contingent on the creation of such a legislative body.

And although it remains to be seen what the region will gain through the new law, by continuing to go forward with the I-94 project at this point, MDOT seems determined to implement the project in its current conception to reduce congestion and make the roadways safer.

The idea behind induced demand is contingent on a few circumstances, though, says Joseph Hummer, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Wayne State University.

He says that the three factors that spur the phenomenon are: motorists who travel a different route before starting to take the new, improved road; motorists who currently travel the road change the time of day they drive it; or there’s an increase of new drivers who begin taking the roadway simply because of its improvements. None of these, he feels, will probably come into play in the case of the I-94 project.

“Induced demand is people coming out of the woodwork,” he says, adding the only potential outcome we may encounter, at a small-scale, are people changing the time of day for their route.

The amount of congestion currently — with peak usage occurring, roughly speaking, during two hours in the morning and evening — doesn’t suggest there would be a congested roadway down the line, if it is in fact widened, he says. “I don’t think we’ll see a lot of people shifting from Gratiot to I-94.”

Not everyone, however, is certain that the widening of I-94 will bring long-term benefits that justify the project’s immense costs.

In his widely-acclaimed new book titled Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck, a city planner who has worked across the globe to revitalize areas that have succumbed to economic downfalls, sees the answer to a city’s success as such:

“What works best in the best cities is walkability,” he writes in the book’s prologue. “Get walkability right and so much of the rest will follow.”

The proposed MDOT project, in his eyes, is an extreme level of shortsightedness.

Saying in an email that MDOT in the past has been known for “thoughtful and progressive” policies, Speck, raising the specter of induced demand, is dumbfounded by the fact that the department is pushing so hard for the expansion of I-94.

“If they are using promises of reducing congestion as a motivation for this construction, then they need to be shamed for a lack of understanding of their own profession,” he writes.

Reducing congestion (and accidents) is only part of the reason the roadway needs to be expanded, contends MDOT. Another benefit, it is argued, would be an influx of economic activity along the stretch.

But is spending $1.8 billion in public money to widen the freeway really the best way to help stimulate the economy of a Midtown neighborhood that’s already on the upswing?

The answer, according to information provided by Speck in WalkableCity would appear to be “no.”

“Cities with largest drops in housing values (such as Las Vegas, down 37 percent),” he writes in Walkable City, “have been the most car-dependent. The few cities with housing gains … have good transit alternatives.”

Although the Motor City glows with pride over its intense bond to the automobile, alternative modes of transportation — the dearth of which has been an issue in metro Detroit for years — have proven in certain instances to be more of a benefit to local economies.

Almost 85 percent of money spent on cars and gas leaves the local economy, Speck writes, citing Intelligent Cities, an initiative of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., that explores the intersection of information technology and urban design.

And, using the nation’s capital — a beneficiary of early investment in alternative transit — as a focal point of the effect auto usage has on the local economy, he offers a remarkable example.

“From 2005 to 2009, as the District’s population grew by 15,862 people, car registration fell by almost 15,000 vehicles,” he writes. “This reduction in auto use results in as much as $127,275,000 being retained in the local economy each year.” Regardless, says MDOT’s Director of Communications Jeff Cranson, even if a community isn’t pleased with the fact that a major freeway has cut through its neighborhood, the community has to understand this is something “we’re going to have to live with the rest of our lives.”

But here’s what many would consider a radical, maybe even crazy, question to at least pose:

Do we even need the decrepit 65-year-old Edsel Ford Freeway? There are ways to travel around or through Detroit other than I-94 (e.g., taking I-75 or the Southfield Freeway to Interstate-696; the Lodge to the Davison Freeway, etc.), and the city’s surface streets could certainly be utilized more, especially if the money were used to maintain them.

The idea that urban freeways may have been a failed concept that should — and can — be addressed is something that’s been discussed at length in recent years; dispelling the notion that disgruntled purveyors of “city living” are simply promulgating an irrational concept.

In 1931 Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford, an influential planner and sociologist, respectively, made an effort to delineate the potential problems of urban freeways. Writing for Harper’s, they proposed the idea that freeways should be built not through cities but around them. Ann Arbor is a prime example of a nearby municipality where the concept of what MacKaye and Mumford called the “townless highway” was implemented.

What they had to say now seems absolutely prescient.

“Our cities sometimes make feeble attempts to accelerate through traffic by routing it off the main avenues” they wrote. “But the first principle of the townless highway goes a long step farther: it requires that the highway avoid passing through the town. The demand for this kind of planning has already come from the motorist and is being met by the more progressive highway engineers. Take Federal Route No. 1 along the Atlantic Coast, from Eastport, Maine, to Miami, Florida. Plans are in the making to relocate several sections of this route so that instead of going through the big cities along the Atlantic Coast it will pass them by on the inland side. Other plans would connect these revised sections by revised locations between cities. And so, by these two awkward back steps, Route No.1 would be relocated farther inland and turned from an old-fashioned turnpike into what it should have been from the beginning ¬— a townless highway.”

Foreshadowing our present-day state of affairs, the duo predicted what the coming highway system would eventually bring:

“Having achieved thousands of miles of wide, concrete-paved highways, having projected many thousands more on almost exactly the same pattern, we lean back complacently in our chairs and fancy we have solved the problems of motor transportation — although our jammed city streets, our run-down suburbs, our spoiled villages, our devastated tracts of countryside, our country homes that are as quiet and peaceful as a boilerworks are all large and ironic commentaries upon our pretensions.”

So think: Could we one day get rid of I-94 between I-96 and Conner Avenue, and actually come out benefiting from it?

As improbable as the proposition may seem at first, a handful of cities across the country have removed parts of their freeway systems in recent years, opting to replace them with boulevards and parks instead. The results have been tremendous.

The Loma Prieta earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1989 devastated the city and the structure of the Embarcadero Freeway, which hugged the city’s waterfront. The damage to the freeway was so bad it was closed to traffic.

Fears of paralyzing gridlock were dispelled when, after a brief period of time, motorists simply began to find other routes to get to their destinations. Two years after the earthquake forced its closures, what remained of the freeway was demolished and removed.

Speck writes in Walkable City that the removal project’s cost was $171 million, and, eventually, property values shot up by 300 percent as new neighborhoods and parks sprouted up across the reclaimed territory.

John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit that promotes mixed-use, walkable neighborhood development, has been a big champion of freeway removal. He says he feels that MDOT’s focus should be on Detroit’s street grid, which was created to distribute local traffic.

“It’s somewhat degraded because they closed some of the streets and created superblocks,” he says. “But Detroit has a really good street plan. … The last 60 years, the Michigan DOT’s been trying to ignore it or suppress it.”

In 1950s America, construction of a vast freeway system was pushed and accepted as the saving grace to traffic congestion, something Detroit itself suffered from. But the city was never in need of freeways, Norquist argues.

“Detroit … built avenues like Gratiot and Woodward, which had plenty of capacity,” he says. “If you got congested on one you could just go to the next street over. So, what [MDOT] is doing is more of the same that they’ve done for 60 years.”

Norquist, a former mayor of Milwaukee, says the question that should be asked is would this project lend more value to Detroit than other potential options?

“The answer to that is clearly no,” he says.

Grist senior editor Greg Hanscom summarizes what’s been dubbed by some the “Great Urban Freeway Experiment” more directly: It just seemed like a good idea at the time.

“The time was the 1950s and ’60s, specifically, and U.S. cities were watching their residents flee to the suburbs in alarming numbers,” he opined on the website. “Their solution: Build giant freeways connecting city centers to the burbs, thereby allowing citizens to live the good life on the outskirts and commute to work in the urban core. It was an attempt to hang on to urban industrial might even as the city’s population bled (or drove) out.”

In an interview with the nonprofit Next American City, a digital magazine that focuses on urban affairs, Norquist used Detroit as an example of massive freeway expansion and cited what he thinks the effects of it were on the city.

“The Detroit metropolitan area is covered with freeways,” he says in the interview. “Every freeway you could possible imagine has been built — although there are a couple left on the drawing board — but more than any other place in the country, the Michigan DOT pretty much got its way.”

His view on what the city and state got as a result of the vast freeway system is worth quoting at length:

“The city of Detroit doesn’t really have a problem with congestion anymore. That’s the least of their problems. So by creating a transportation system that encouraged people to leave town — the population of the city is about a third of what it was since 1950. They had 300 miles of streetcars at the end of the war. That’s all gone. Now they have these big roads. The street grid has been cut up, so it’s hard to move around on the surface streets. And normally that’s a big problem, but with Detroit the rush hour has become so uneventful that you really don’t have a problem with congestion. You have to go out to the suburbs to find congestion that you’re used to in America.”

That is exactly why he says he was surprised to hear about MDOT’s proposal to widen I-94 within the city limits over increased traffic along the road.

“That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says. “Any traffic projections they have showing increased traffic are probably not founded on real facts. The amount of driving — vehicle miles traveled in the United States — has been declining now for the last five years … The idea that there’s just this endless curve going up with more demand for driving is really bogus.”

But the idea of tearing down I-94 isn’t being seriously discussed by anyone. At least for now.

Hummer, the chair of the WSU civil and environmental engineering department, says the instances where freeway removal has been successful involve areas that were near waterfronts, such as the Embarcadero. He adds, the idea of removing another freeway within the city, Interstate 375, is something that he sees as being more likely. Something Transportation Riders United hammered home on in their response to the environmental impact study was the disregard to alternative transit in the state’s I-94 plan, especially in a city where a large portion of the local population doesn’t have cars.

Detroit remains the only major metropolitan area in the country without a reliable, region-wide rapid transit system. The focus of a project that widens a major freeway would seemingly reaffirm the notion that we are entirely dependent on the automobile. That’s final.

In the environmental impact study, MDOT wrote there have been discussions with the Detroit Department of Transportation on the possibility of a bus route that goes along the continuous service drive that’s being planned. But, it continues, this is something that would be entirely up to DDOT, as they aren’t involved in the construction of the project.

In recent days, reports that U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will in fact deliver a promised $25 million grant for the Woodward light-rail project have raised hopes that the project will finally come to fruition.

Comparisons between the M-1 light-rail and I-94 rehab projects are illuminating.

The construction of the original 9.3-mile proposal for the Woodward light-rail project, one of the potential beneficiaries of federal funding — stretching from downtown Detroit to the former State Fair Grounds — was projected to cost around $500 million. The projected annual operating costs at the time were reportedly $10 million.

For some context, based on those numbers, the projected cost of the MDOT I-94 Rehabilitation Project could fund the construction of the original 9.3-mile Woodward light-rail system, and then keep it operating for 130 years.

The plan for the M-1 light-rail system, as it stands now, has been diminished to 3.4 miles, running between New Center and downtown Detroit.

Financial inequality has become more of a prevalent factor of mainstream discussion over the past few years. In driving, the argument becomes that the wealthy, compared to the average person, perhaps have an easier time being transported to their daily destinations, able to avoid constant bouts with a clogged freeway. For the average person, being trapped inside a vehicle only makes a less fortunate existence that much more of a bother. Working eight to 10 hours a day and then having to spend two more inside of a vehicle traveling to and from work isn’t the greatest recipe for someone’s well-being.

In WalkableCity, Speck notes the argument on equity within our transportation system made by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich in 1973.

Illich wrote, “Beyond a certain speed, motorized vehicles create remoteness which they alone can shrink. They create distances and shrink them for only a few. … The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering the resources for it. … The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 percent of their society’s budget instead of 28 percent.”

Are we prolonging our absolute submission to the lord of the free-flowing highway by continuing to construct such projects (i.e., widening our roads) that have provided questionable results? Or is our sprawling, interconnected freeway system something we do indeed have to live with the rest of our lives, but which can be adjusted to achieve positive results?

In September, Michael Kimmelman, a New York Times architecture critic, took a trip to Louisville, Ky. — a Rust Belt city that is as loyal to the automobile as Detroit. His reason for the visit? The city was pursuing a plan to enlarge its downtown freeway and to construct a second bridge across the Ohio River next to the Kennedy Bridge, which connects Louisville to Jeffersonville, Ind. But the plan has been met with opposition in court due to issues on funding and the environment. And there has also been a recent influx of a younger crowd into downtown Louisville. This new generation is seeking an urban setting that once existed, and which they hope to see blossom again one day.

Sound familiar?

Kimmelman makes the argument that Louisville stands poised for a revival — as so many downtowns across the country do. But, he writes, Louisville is a city that lacks good public transportation and should be taking into consideration the new generation of residents the downtown district has inherited.

He suggests, “…[s]tart by thinking about what kind of streets and neighborhoods a city wants, what kind of waterfront it should have and how mass transit could change things.”

He continues, “As for the notion that expanding the interstate tangle and adding the sister bridge next to the Kennedy might bring more people and jobs into the city, I can only say that 40 years after the interstates supposedly started pumping life into Louisville’s downtown, the streets here looked pretty empty, especially at night. Maybe that’s an outsider’s misperception. But removing the highways, or downscaling them, might turn downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods, including the riverfront, into more attractive places. And where highways have come down in other cities, property values have gone up. What brings life to a city are attractions, services, homes and walkable streets.”

In the environmental impact statement for the I-94 rehabilitation project, MDOT does propose an alternative option for the project, which is fixing up the stretch of I-94 by replacing all bridge structures and ramps without making major changes to the design of the freeway and its interchanges with I-75 and M-10. The proposed widening of the freeway would be omitted.

The impact statement also leaves open a final option: to do nothing at all.

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