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To Destabilize Detroit’s Fragile Renaissance, Go Ahead and Widen I-94

Several historic buildings, including Detroit's oldest recording studio, would be mowed down to widen I-94 for no reason. Photo: Mode Shift via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group
Several historic buildings, including Detroit's oldest recording studio, would be mowed down to widen I-94 for no reason. Photo: Mode Shift via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

Michigan highway planners want to spend $2.7 billion to widen Interstate 94 through the heart of Detroit, saying that the existing road needs not just resurfacing and better bridges, but also more space for traffic. State officials continue to push forward with the project despite Detroit’s rapid population loss and other woes, and despite the fact that traffic volume on the stretch being considered for expansion is no higher than it was in 2005. Expanding the highway might even make Detroit’s economic recovery more difficult by further separating two neighborhoods that have been leading the city’s nascent revitalization.

The proposal would widen a seven-mile segment of I-94 called the Edsel Ford Expressway, which runs in a trench through the center of the city between the Midtown and New Center neighborhoods. Those areas are important for the city’s revitalization because of their central location. Efforts there to boost arts and culture, retail and commercial space, and downtown living have been gaining steam in recent years.

In fact, better connecting the neighborhoods is one reason for a $140 million streetcar project that broke ground this July. Officials have already begun calling for expansion of that project, but funds are currently lacking.

The proposed expansion of the highway would have the opposite effect, widening the physical trench between the neighborhoods and removing 11 bridges across the freeway that would not be replaced. As a result, walking and biking in the area would become much less convenient, forcing people to travel as much as six blocks out of their way to reach destinations.

Transportation officials say many buildings would have to be removed to make room for the wider road. The project requires displacing or demolishing 12 commercial buildings, 14 single-family homes, two duplexes and two apartment buildings with 14 units between them, as well as three buildings either on or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, including the city’s oldest recording studio.

These effects could be lessened -- along with the project's cost -- if state officials opted to rebuild the highway on its existing footprint. Despite Detroit’s plummeting population and the reduced use of the highway in recent years, planners -- citing data compiled as early as 2002 -- say the road cannot handle the traffic it previously handled, nor the level of use they predict in the future.

The original justification for the project, from 2003, anticipated that driving mileage in the region would increase more than 11 percent by 2025. In fact, driving in the region had decreased 14 percent by 2013.

Traffic counts on this part of I-94 show that of the 11 road segments where comparisons are possible, 10 saw less traffic in 2012 than in 2000.

The last 13 years haven't done much to shore up the case for widening Detroit's I-94, but the state plans to proceed anyway. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group
More than a decade of stagnating or declining traffic weakens the case for widening Detroit's I-94, but the state plans to proceed anyway. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Questionable and outdated as the project’s traffic projections may be, the state still relies on them to justify adding a full travel lane in each direction, wider shoulders, additional lanes for entering and exiting the highway, and parallel service roads on both sides of the highway running the length of the project.

Southeastern Michigan residents have questioned the merit of prioritizing highway expansion in the region. A November 2012 survey of residents of the city of Detroit and seven surrounding counties found that more people say they “would rather live with current levels of traffic congestion (63 percent) than pay more to reduce traffic congestion (37 percent).”

Plenty of other transportation priorities lack funding. Other than the streetcar, there is no rail transit in the region. A March 2014 Wall Street Journal article highlighted the advanced age and poor condition of Detroit’s buses -- and noted that almost two-thirds of Detroit residents with jobs commute to workplaces outside the city limits. Public transportation in Detroit has long been of low quality, and recent efforts to improve transit service in the city have fallen victim to the city’s fiscal woes -- a problem that does not seem to be slowing down this highway project.

Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst at U.S. PIRG, and Jeff Inglis, policy analyst at the Frontier Group, are co-authors of the report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.”

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