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Citizens Urge Lawmakers to Oppose I-94 Widening Plan

$1.3 billion should go to fix existing roads, provide transit choices

May 11, 2001 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

For Immediate Release
May 11, 2001

Arlin Wasserman, Policy Director
Michigan Land Use Institute
Phone: 231-271-3683 • Fax: 847-574-0480
Email: arlin@mlui.org • Web site: www.mlui.org

Benzonia — Citizen groups from across the state today urged Michigan lawmakers not to waste $1.3 billion — as much as the state’s spends in one year for road and bridge repair — on widening a single, seven-mile stretch of Interstate 94 in Detroit. The state has no clear plan yet to pay for the massive, seven-year project to expand I-94 to 24 lanes between I-96 and Connor Avenue, the groups explained in a joint letter-->joint letter to Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and state lawmakers on the house and senate appropriations committees. The most likely funding source, the groups warned, is federal money that would be better spent to revive regional bus and rail service in Michigan. The second likely option would be for the Michigan Department of Transportation to draw from its existing road and bridge repair budget.

The coalition of Michigan Smart Growth, transit, and environmental advocacy groups called for more efficient and effective transportation spending, including fully funding public transit and placing a higher priority on fixing Michigan’s existing roads and bridges before spending on new construction. Transportation department officials estimate the cost of simply managing traffic during the I-94 widening will cost more than $250 million — the approximate amount that Michigan spends each year to support public transit statewide. And while the state pours money into the seven-mile stretch of I-94, other Michigan roads will continue to fall into disrepair. More than half of all state roads must be replaced, not just patched, over the next seven years. The cost to do so is rapidly increasing, in part because the transportation department has deferred important maintenance activities while spending to build new and wider roads. The department has yet to develop a plan for funding statewide repair efforts.

In addition to keeping Michigan’s existing roads in good repair, the state needs to give commuters more transportation choices, said Arlin Wasserman, policy director at the Michigan Land Use Institute. "A 1997 MDOT study found the state could build three commuter rail lines from Detroit to Mt. Clemens, Pontiac, and Ann Arbor — complete with trains, track, and stations — for only $130 million. Instead of pursuing this promising program, the department is advancing a plan that widens a few miles of freeway and costs ten times as much."

"There’s a real need to invest in Detroit’s transportation system. $1.3 billion in new funding could allow city leaders to build a first-class transit system that helps people out of traffic and on to jobs, hospitals, schools, and other places they need to go," Wasserman said. "The state could find better ways to spend the money helping drivers, such as fixing Detroit’s deteriorating roadways. Driving on the metro region’s neglected roads also costs the average motorist an extra $186 in gas and repair bills each year. Massively widening a short stretch of freeway won’t provide benefits that are worth the cost. It will only siphon scarce taxpayer dollars away from other priorities in the city and across the state."

"UCP Michigan works to increase transportation for people with disabilities, many of whom can only get around if public transportation is available," said Kevin Wisselink of UCP Michigan. "This $1.3 billion freeway project comes in a city where 30% of the people do not own an automobile. The I-94 expansion is at the expense of regional transit options that could truly enhance the mobility for all people living in the region."

According to Anna Holden, conservation co-chair of the southeast Michigan group of the Sierra Club, "The excessive cost of the I-94 expansion will eat up all of the state funds available, leaving nothing for badly-needed renewal and upgrade of public transportation in the metropolitan Detroit area. The health impact will disproportionately affect the African-American community, which is already overburdened with toxic exposure."

The coalition of groups called on state lawmakers in the joint letter to publicly oppose the I-94 widening project now, before the next phase begins. The design phase of the I-94 project is budgeted at $100 million and will begin if MDOT successfully completes environmental studies. State and federal agencies are now reviewing a draft environmental impact study and mitigation plan.

Coalition groups include: Michigan Land Use Institute, United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan, Metropolitan Organizing Strategy for Enabling Strength (MOSES), West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Michigan Environmental Council, Ecology Center, Faith in Motion, Grand Rapids Center for Independent Living, West Michigan Region Environmental Network (WREN), Branch County RICC (Regional Interagency Coordinating Committee), People First of Branch County, Huron Land Use Alliance, Transportation Action Strategy for Kalamazoo, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Sierra Club, Southeast Michigan Group, Public Interest Research Group in Michigan, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Surface Transportation Policy Project. More information about transportation spending priorities, congestion, and the role of modern transit can be found at the Institute’s Web site: www.mlui.org.

Detroit Traffic Congestion Increases Despite Road Building
On May 7, the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Surface Transportation Policy Project released "Easing the Burden," a national study that found Michigan’s road widening efforts have done little to ease congestion. The Detroit area is the nation’s third-most congestion-burdened metropolitan area, even though its population has increased by only half of a percent since 1990 while miles of roadway in the area expanded by 6.5 percent. Other similar-sized cities ranked in the report significantly eased their congestion burden over the same time by investing in transit options.

"The good news from this report is that metro Detroit can break out of crushing gridlock by investing in world-class rapid bus and train service," said Kelly Thayer, transportation project coordinator at the Michigan Land Use Institute. "It’s a lesson that Michigan’s other growing cities would be wise to heed." A full copy of the report is available at STPP’s Web site: www.transact.org.

Metro Region Working to Improve Public Transit
Citizen groups in metropolitan Detroit for years have called for improved transit service to help people out of traffic and on to jobs, doctors’ offices, and other places they need to go. Some new developments show promise. Metropolitan Detroit’s regional planning agency and the Detroit Chamber of Commerce now are actively engaged in developing a regional transit plan and funding options. In addition, passenger rail studies are underway between Detroit and Lansing, and between Detroit and Detroit Metro Airport. A public-private group also is studying an innovative express-bus option for the Detroit area.

"These transit studies, along with rising gas prices, all suggest that we need a regional public transit system in metro Detroit," said Vicky Kovari of MOSES, a faith-based metro Detroit social justice organization. "This must be the first priority before pouring billions of dollars into road widenings that are certain to prolong Detroit’s congestion problem," she said. "We call on state lawmakers to increase transit funding and to order MDOT to hold off on more freeway expansions until public transit initiatives are given a chance to succeed."

About the Institute
The Michigan Land Use Institute is an independent, nonprofit research, educational, and service organization founded in 1995. More than 2,200 households, businesses, and organizations have joined the Institute in support of its mission to establish an approach to economic development that strengthens communities, enhances opportunity, and protects Michigan’s unmatched natural resources.

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