Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / There's a Better Way to Get There (Page 2)

There's a Better Way to Get There (Page 2)

August 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MDOT's View
Officials from the Michigan Department of Transportation and road-building industries say highways are the bulwark of a state economy that is stronger than it's been in decades. Most of what citizens need to conduct their lives moves on highways, they say. And after years of deferred maintenance, roads are improving as MDOT continues with its intensive repair program.

"As faras wecansee, thehighway network will remain the back bone of our transportation system,"said Louis H. Lambert, MDOT's deputy director of planning. "I see nothing on the horizon that will change people's view that their personal vehicleis the way they get around.

"There is not a strong interest in this state for living close together," he added. "People are not intimidated by long distances and they don't think much about driving two hours to work. For all those reasons, and more, our highway system has served us well and will continue to serve us well."

Need to Broaden Vision
With increasing vigor, a host of community leaders and alternative transportation advocates are documenting the extraordinary fiscal, social, and environmental costs of an over-reliance on highway building, and urging the state to broaden its vision. Advocates say highways in Michigan are encouraging some of the nation's worst sprawl, damaging Main Street businesses, increasing polluted runoff into lakes and streams, and wasting tens of thousands of acres of land.

Moreover, they assert, the road-dependent policy has led to an expensive, self-perpetuating cycle: more and wider roads attract more cars, which increases congestion, which leads to more and wider roads, and so on.

The scarcity of convenient alternatives in Michigan also has accelerated deterioration in a highway system that is being pounded harder here than in many other industrial states. As a result, Michigan is entering a generational transition not of new highway construction but of ongoing, disruptive, and expensive repair and rebuilding.

For example, Detroit completed its highway system in the 1970s, ahead of most cities, and now is among the first forced to rebuild it. The reconstruction is producing a nightmare of tie-ups that began in 1998, will persist for years, and will be repeated every 25 years or so.

Huge Amounts of Money
The repair costs, 80% financed by the federal government, are astonishing. For example, MDOT is considering reconstructing 11 miles of I-94 in Detroit, which includes four miles of interchanges with the Lodge Freeway (M-10) and I-75. The estimated cost — $1.3 billion — places it among the most expensive highway reconstruction projects in the nation, according to highway engineers. As much as 20% of the project's budget, or $260 million, would be spent just to manage traffic during construction.

The traffic management portion alone is nearly $100 million more than the state will contribute this year to public transportation agencies throughout Michigan. It also is twice the price of building a commuter rail network in Detroit with three routes — connected to Ann Arbor, Pontiac, and Mt. Clemens — 100 miles of track, and 30 stations, according to a recent MDOT study. Such a system could serve nearly 20,000 passengers a day and cost just $23.4 million a year to operate.

Pavement Lasts Just 25 Years
Thomas Hickey, a planner in Philadelphia with one of the nation's preeminent transportation design firms, said commuter lines built on existing rail beds cost roughly $700,000 a mile, less than one-tenth the price of a mile-long four-lane highway. Expanding service simply requires adding new cars, at a cost of $2 million to $3 million each, not widening or increasing the number of rail lines. And a well-maintained rail system does not need to be reconstructed every generation like concrete and asphalt. The heavily-traveled Paoli Local that serves Main Line communities in Philadelphia, for example, operates on track that was installed in the 1920s.

"Paved highway is not resilient like a steel rail," said Mr. Hickey. "Concrete will only flex so much and then has to be torn up, brought back to dirt, and basically rebuilt."

In Lansing, senior MDOT officials say their attitude toward railroads is softening, but just a bit. Although the Engler Administration does not support commuter rail for Detroit or any other city, it is working with other Midwest states to spend $400 million, most of it from federal funds, on a high-speed rail network linking Chicago to Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Port Huron.

"People are not intimidated bylong distances and they don'tthink much about driving twohours to work."

deputy director of planning, Michigan Department of Transportation

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org