20+ years in the making, 20+ years from completion: MDOT's I-94 expansion plan

click to enlarge 20+ years in the making, 20+ years from completion: MDOT's I-94 expansion plan
Photo by Colin Maloney

The neverending saga of MDOT’s I-94 expansion plan began its latest chapter this week.

A “modernization project,” which has been simmering on Michigan’s political back burner for well over two decades, proposes expanding the interstate highway one lane in each direction between I-96 and Conner.

To gauge public sentiment on the plan, MDOT held a series of open houses on Wednesday and Thursday in Detroit. The sessions were reminiscent of an academic poster presentation, with project designers and engineers answering questions about the various mock-ups on display. Participants were also encouraged to provide feedback, continuing a trend from the most recent public meeting in July 2015.

During that meeting last summer, MDOT focused on gathering input on four key areas: continuous service drives, community connector bridges, pedestrian bridges, and the John R Bridge. That input was then synthesized by the project team, who developed the set of “proposed modifications under consideration” presented at this week’s meetings.

Perhaps the biggest change was the retainment of a number of local overpasses previously slated for removal. As reported on the pages of the Metro Times in 2013, groups such as Transportation Riders United were concerned that destroying those connections would serve to isolate growing neighborhoods, such as Midtown, from adjacent communities.

To some, the level of public collaboration at these open houses was a genuine change in tack for MDOT. To others, it was more of the same. At least one local activist was animated in his distaste for the latest proposal, alternating between fiery interrogation of MDOT staffers and resignation to the inevitability of “unreasonable change.”

Tom Weston, a consulting project manager for MDOT, conceded that the initial design of the highway in the 1950s wasn’t perfect, but argued that upgrades were long overdue. Specifically, he referred to the first phase of the I-94 Modernization Project, the rebuilding of eight “advanced bridges” between 2018 and 2019. According to materials provided by MDOT at the open houses, reconstruction of the I-94 freeway would begin after these crumbling bridges are rebuilt.

Too much traffic means not enough lanes, the logic goes.

The first part of that statement almost certainly resonates with many metro Detroit commuters. The 6.7-mile stretch of I-94 in question sees some of the highest traffic volumes in the state, with Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) hitting 168,200 drivers in some spots. And while nobody enjoys the endless stop-start rhythm of brake, gas, brake, gas after a long day at the office, it remains a stubbornly inescapable fact of car-centric life in southeast Michigan.

The veracity of the second part of statement, however, isn’t as clear. The main reason for the murkiness is a concept called “induced demand,” which describes a situation in which increased supply results in a proportional increase in demand. More freeway lanes = more traffic = unchanged commute times. With that in mind, opponents of the highway expansion effort say the money allocated to the project should instead be invested in public transportation, HOV lanes, or basic road maintenance.

Still, induced demand wasn’t the public’s only concern at the open house. Displacement of local residents and business owners, the destruction of a structural sound buffer at the M-10/I-94 interchange, the elimination of on/off ramps between I-75 and the Lodge, and artificial neighborhood separation all made it onto the sticky notes MDOT provided attendees for “collaborative feedback.”

Rob Morosi, Communications Specialist for MDOT, hoped this interactive approach would yield valuable insights for the latest iteration of the project team. When asked about a concrete timeline for the project, though, he advocated remaining patient with an initiative first undertaken in 1992, saying it "depends on the volume of feedback" and that MDOT "[doesn't] need to rush it."

Whether this is a damning, evasive statement of government ineptitude or a necessary exemplification of the aphorism "good things take time" likely depends on your preexisting levels of jadedness and cynicism. But you have to give MDOT credit for finding a universal in an increasingly fractured post-election America: hatred of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Read more on the proposal and provide feedback here.

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