Southeast Michigan’s High-Priced Spread
Decades of highway subsidies strangle transit and region’s future
January 17, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Metro Detroit’s expressway building boom spurred one of the nation’s worst cases of sprawl and contributes to an unprecedented obesity epidemic.
History proves she was right. In the 1950s, while Michigan began pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into building the Lodge, Ford, Chrysler, and Southfield expressways to hurry people from Detroit to the suburbs, Toronto instead built a subway. It was among the many smart, human-scale public investments that Toronto made to preserve its downtown from ruinous freeways and make its urban neighborhoods among North America’s nicest. Detroit, meanwhile, lost more than half of its population and now has fewer residents than it did in 1920. Its suburbs are so spread out that its roads are the nation’s tenth most congested, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Transportation has become so stressful and expensive that people are moving in droves to the state’s forested northern Lower Peninsula, now the Midwest’s fastest-growing region.
Reconstructing the Lodge Expressway at I-94 in midtown Detroit
This striking imbalance harms the region’s economic performance, in turn limiting the state’s competitiveness:
- Southeast Michigan’s dogged devotion to highways and refusal to develop regional rapid transit means that 94 percent of Detroit-area workers commute by private vehicle, overwhelming the region’s roads. A big budget crunch is approaching, according to a current Southeast Michigan Council of Governments study: New roads will cost $60 billion over the next generation, but just $40 billion is available without raising taxes.
- The region’s vehicle dependence costs about $6,000 per year per car and often tops housing in family budgets.
- The Detroit region is growing more slowly than almost any other major American metropolitan area. It is shedding manufacturing jobs by the thousands and losing droves of young adults tired of bad traffic, dead end jobs, and centerless suburbs. Many of the more than 200,000 young people who left Michigan in the 1990s came from metropolitan Detroit, literally making it the national brain drain champion.
- Executives of major southeast Michigan companies complain that recruiting top talent is difficult because other areas offer more opportunities for recreation, culture, housing, and transit. In 2003, Forbes Magazine ranked the region’s growth and career opportunities 141st out of the 150 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.
Blaming the Victim
|Long-abandoned apartments in Detroit|
L. Brooks Patterson, the influential Republican Oakland County Executive, is an important booster for new highways; he says they are critical to the business climate and quality of life in his slowed-to-a-crawl suburbs.
While Mr. Patterson is right about why people choose suburbs, he’s wrong about what it takes to build economic competitiveness in the 21st century and what causes urban decline, particularly in Detroit. Racial, political, economic, labor, housing, government, and manufacturing trends prompted the Motor City’s long slide; in some cases city residents and leaders encouraged it; in others, business executives and political bosses in Washington and Lansing did.
‘That Makes No Sense’
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“One of the reasons I got into planning is that my godparents lived in Black Bottom,” said Ms. Jeff, referring to Detroit’s prime black neighborhood of that era. “There were three promises made to folks that lived down there when they moved them out. It was: We will build new housing. It will be affordable. And we’ll move you back in. Well guess what? They did build new. It wasn’t affordable for the folks they moved out. Urban renewal had much more of a detrimental impact than highways. The two in combination did very bad things to the city.”
No wonder many now question whether the path to the Detroit region’s prosperity is more parking lots and highways, as so many leaders insist. Many great American cities are now dismantling their urban freeways. San Francisco took down the Embarcadero, which blocked the city’s shoreline from the central business district. Milwaukee demolished a downtown freeway and replaced it with a thriving neighborhood. Boston buried its downtown freeways and built parks, housing and offices over it.
Because Detroit spawned so many 20th-century American hallmarks — cars, malls, freeways — it’s appropriate to see Detroit representing what Michigan and the nation could well become in the 21st. But this new reckoning depends on where economic development investments are made. Detroit will either be the first city to smother its entire metropolitan region with the expense, pollution, congestion, and stress fostered by public spending that bows to freeways and drive-through culture. Or it will be at the vanguard of a new and uniquely efficient design that relies on smarter public investments to generate jobs, build quality mass transit, produce safe neighborhoods, and encourage excellent public schools. Just as they have in Chicago, Portland, Seattle, and Boston, smarter public investments in Detroit would foster a region that celebrates its neighborhoods, conserves its clean air and water, and boasts an array of interesting jobs, cool destinations, safe streets, and good schools.
Ferndale Sues Regional Council
City manager says region needs more transit, not highways
Tom Barwin, Ferndale’s city manager, is dead set against widening I-75.
“While it’s under construction it will turn this county into a mess,” he said. “And when it’s done it will increase congestion.”
He believes constructing commuter rail lines would be a superior investment. In the more than 20 American cities that have done so since 1992, ridership has consistently exceeded estimates and the systems generate billions in employment, construction, and tax dollars.
Last year Mr. Barwin convinced Ferndale to sue the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which annually distributes more than $600 million for transportation projects. Mr. Barwin contends that SEMCOG’s transportation spending favors white, upwardly mobile outer suburbs and ignores Detroit and its inner suburbs. The suit, now on appeal, asserts that SEMCOG’s voting structure is unfair. For example, three committee votes represent Detroit’s 900,000 people, while four represent Monroe County’s 150,000.
“We simply seek equal voting rights for all citizens,” he said.
Mr. Barwin favors building light rail along Woodward Avenue between Detroit and Pontiac, reviving a line that once was part of the country’s largest regional rail network. He says it would cost $35 to $50 million a mile and attract thousands of riders; a SEMCOG study confirms it would serve some of the region’s most vital areas.
Events back Mr. Barwin’s claim that there is strong support for transit. Grand Rapids’ regional system added 200,000 riders this year; Lansing’s has doubled its count since 1998; Detroit’s suburban system is growing steadily. In August 2004, citizens in 13 out of 14 Michigan counties voted for property taxes to support their buses, mostly by landslides.