Traffic jam

Feb 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

At first I thought the median built on Livernois from Eight Mile Road to just south of McNichols in my Detroit neighborhood was a good idea. I thought it would soften the look of the area and make it pedestrian-friendly with nice greenery on a safe island in the middle of seven lanes of roadway.

It didn't matter that I had to make a Michigan left — which means when emerging from a side street onto Livernois you turn right and then make a U-turn around a median. Typically, it's safer than a left turn.

But then I began to avoid Livernois as much as possible. If I want to go south, instead of taking a side street to Livernois and turning left, as I've done the 12 years I've lived here, I drive through the Sherwood Forest neighborhood to Seven Mile and make my turn onto Livernois there. Apparently a lot of drivers, including those in commercial vehicles, are cutting through neighborhoods, rather than traveling the now tough-to-navigate Livernois.

That's just the beginning of this urban improvement boondoggle that the city plans to extend all the way to Grand River. It's clear that the first phase of this $6.5 million federal-state-city project is rife with problems that need to be solved before bringing them to more neighborhoods.

"The turns aren't quite right," says Gary Hepburn, whose father owns Superior Screen Printing on the Avenue of Fashion shopping area near Seven Mile. "You have to back up, and then turn again."

What he means is the median isn't wide enough to easily turn around. A typical median of this kind is 60 feet to 70 feet wide; Livernois only allows for a median about 24 feet wide. To make a U-turn, you have to swing all the way into the second lane, or you have to back up in the median space to reangle your wheels for a sharp turn.

"I just didn't think it was a good idea," says Hepburn.

The idea had its genesis in a 1999 Livernois Road Corridor Study done by Wayne State University for AAA and the City of Detroit. It had suggestions for making a number of high-accident intersections safer. One of those suggestions was a median from the Lodge north to Cambridge (just north of Seven Mile) as a trial.

Somehow the study became city policy, and it is repeatedly referred to by DPW officials as justification for the project. The city says that the median, built in 2006, has reduced traffic accidents by 46 percent, although it has not produced documentation for that figure.

Still, neighborhood residents and businesspeople along the route are unhappy. They've raised their concerns at several public forums and City Council meetings to little satisfaction. At a Feb. 11 meeting with the Neighborhood and Community Services Subcommittee of the City Council's Public Health and Safety Standing Committee (chaired by Alberta Tinsley-Talabi with Sheila Cockrel and JoAnn Watson), DPW Deputy Director Ron Brundage made it clear that "contracts have been signed" and the city intends to start construction on Phase Two of the median project in April. That's despite a City Council resolution last June calling on the Kilpatrick administration to halt construction for a comprehensive review of Phase One.

Calls to the DPW were eventually directed to the mayor's office, which didn't get back to me.

There's plenty to review in the traffic anarchy that currently rules Livernois: Drivers routinely ignore signage directing right turns only for traffic coming out of side streets. Cars use the median cuts to go straight across Livernois. They also make left turns from side streets and left turns in median cuts intended for U-turns going in the opposite direction.

Larger vehicles making turns in the cuts are downright dangerous. I witnessed a bus start from the right lane of northbound Livernois in order to make a left turn through a median cut onto westbound Curtis. On another occasion, I saw a semitruck block northbound traffic while backing up in the median to make a left turn from southbound Livernois onto a side street. Traffic is more congested because it's been cut from three to two lanes in each direction. The city eliminated some of what was already an inadequate amount of street parking spaces, and the traffic congestion makes it harder to pull in and out from the curbside. Emergency vehicles have trouble maneuvering through the area.

"The construction has just ruined business in this area," says Prisca Onyejiaka, owner of Fashions for Less. "Whatever they think they did, it didn't work out."

Pedestrian crosswalks have been removed. There used to be a traffic light at Margareta, where students from nearby Barbara Jordan Middle School cross; that's gone. There was a marked crosswalk a block north of Seven Mile where shoppers on the Avenue of Fashion could easily cross; that's gone. There was a traffic light at Chippewa where the Liquor Palace convenience store stands; that's gone.

"That light was put here 28 years ago after a 7-year-old kid was hit by a car and killed," says Tom Foumia, the store's owner. "The family still lives in this neighborhood. We get some 300 to 400 people crossing Livernois to come here every day."

Foumia says he put more than $100,000 into upgrading the store about the same time the median was built — including a new facade, windows and better lighting outside and around the parking lot. He says that since then his business has gone down 20 percent. Cars can't drive straight across from the west side of Livernois on Chippewa to go there. The legal route is to turn right onto Livernois, go two blocks south, make a U-turn and drive another two blocks north back to the store. The same goes for drivers traveling southbound on Livernois who can no longer turn left at Chippewa to get there.

Closer to Eight Mile Road, patrons who leave Baker's Keyboard Lounge and want to travel south back into the city have to go north to Eight Mile, go east to the first turnaround, make a U-turn and go west on Eight Mile to the first turnaround past Livernois, make another U-turn and come back to make a right turn onto Livernois — maneuvering through five different traffic lights.

"It kind of takes you out of your way for everyday usage," says Andwele Yakini, who works at his father's Black Star Community Book Store. "I haven't heard anybody say anything good about it."

"I've talked to four business owners who have threatened to leave," said Councilmember Watson. "We made a mistake. ... My 8-year-old granddaughter can look at [the median] and see it doesn't fit. It's such a deterrent to travel and business."

Since the administration hasn't heeded the council's previous call to halt the project for review, Watson says the council should take stronger action. She has asked the council's attorneys to prepare an ordinance to halt further work on the Livernois project until problems have been ironed out. She expects council to address it during a session in the first week of March.

The city should yield to common sense instead of spending millions of dollars to extend this mess for additional miles.

It couldn't have done a worse job if it intended to jam up Livernois.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]