Does Detroit Need Another $1.8 Billion of Freeway? MDOT Thinks So


If there’s a city that could serve as a cautionary tale for overbuilding highways, that city is Detroit. So it’s fascinating — and encouraging — to see this city going through an internal tussle over the wisdom of building a highway.

Hot off a major victory in reforming its balkanized system of suburban and urban transit systems, some leaders in the Motor City are questioning a Michigan Department of Transportation plan to widen I-94 — a chokepoint for suburban commuters — in Detroit and its suburbs. The $1.8 billion project would add one lane in each direction over a 6.7-mile stretch of the freeway, and would involve the rebuilding of 67 overpasses.

MDOT leaders justify the project as a congestion easer for 160,000 commuters, and they say it will reduce collisions. But experience suggests that the project — which has been on the books for decades — will simply induce more traffic and further disinvestment in Detroit.

One of the more prominent critics of the project has been the local advocacy group Transportation Riders United. Michael Boettcher of the TRU told the Metro Times that the widening would undermine the Midtown neighborhood, which has been the site of a fragile resurgence. “The fewer physical connections there are between those areas on both sides of I-94, the greater psychological barriers there will be… making it harder for people to cross the interstate at all by car or on foot,” he said.

Boettcher says the project is not worth the $1.8 billion pricetag. MDOT expects 90 percent of the project’s costs to be paid for by the federal government. But, by state law, that would require a $22 million contribution directly from the city of Detroit, which is struggling to corral a $350 million deficit. Amazingly, Detroit officials are supportive of the project and have promised the funds.

Detroit's Midtown neighborhood is one of the few areas of the city that have seen a real spike in new investment in recent years. But MDOTs plans for I-94 are a potential threat to the neighborhood's recovery. Photo: ## Little Trendstar##

Still, Leslie Smith, president of a technology incubator that sits next to I-94, speculated that funding snags might doom the project. And she said she thought that would be a good thing. “To me, what’s interesting, when you think about the city of Detroit historically, you find the negative impacts the construction of the freeways have had more broadly,” she told the Metro Times. “I’m just not sure we think about the social implications of our actions.”

Project opponents are urging MDOT to consider other options — including building nothing. In his piece for the Metro Times, writer Ryan Felton goes as far as to suggest the city consider tearing down I-94 altogether — and he gets some encouragement from John Norquist, president of the Congress for New Urbanism.

Whether Felton’s proposal or MDOT’s prevails (or something in between), it will shape the way the region develops for decades. Harvard Economist Ed Glaeser once said “the hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies.”

While cities like Detroit have come to recognize that their excess housing stock is a liability, the realization that their physical infrastructure needs to be downsized has been slower to register, or at least influence decisions. Maybe this will be the moment that changes.

  • Brian M.

    Interesting, in the video it says “…most importantly, [the project will] decrease pollutants in the surrounding neighborhoods created by idling vehicles.” 

    Really? What we’ve learned, is that widening/augmenting highways will only lead to more cars, more congestion, and more pollutants. I have on my desk an issue of “Washingtonian,” which has a featured article talking about a $200 billion investment into the highways of NOVA/DC/MD, to “lessen congestion on the Capitol Beltway.” In the article, experts say that despite the widening and augmentation of highways, congestion will remain the *same.* More people will just fill up the extra space. More cars. More pollutants. 

    Generation Y people are increasingly resistant to car culture. Why is MDOT continuing to pander to the older, car-preferring generations? We need to start voting pro-automobile politicians out of office, and REALLY understand how the car destroyed Detroit. 

  • Anonymous

    How could a metro area that has fewer jobs and residents than it did in 1990 possibly need a new freeway?

  • Angie

    Everyone moved progressively farther away and now drives more.

  • Brian M.

    Hipsters like freeways, I guess. 

    I don’t get it, either. The concept of a sustainable future certainly doesn’t include personal automobiles. 

  • Anonymous

    So for the same cost as the roadwork to induce more people to drive through the city, you could build a whole 60-mile network of modern streetcars all over Detroit, giving people a good reason to live there instead.

  • J L

    Just when we are convinced we are broke, we find we have 1.8 billion for another sprawling wasteful project.  Expensive wide roads are not the solution for Detroit.

  • How can one place be so astoundingly dysfunctional? Detroit deserves to fail if it continues being so ridiculous.

  • Laurence Krieg

    It’s true that I-94 through Detroit is a mess. Originally named the “Detroit Industrial Freeway”, the name is still applicable. The high volume of freight is a major factor in its problems. It is an important link between Canada and the rest of North America, and as such it needs to be maintained for the foreseeable future. What MDOT needs to do is diversify the way local and through freight is hauled through the city, especially long-haul freight that could be going by rail. (A new intermodal terminal is in the planning stages.)

    The best solution would be to charge tolls for the downtown stretches of freeway in Detroit. Yes, there are legal barriers to that, but laws can be tweaked. Tolls would have the benefit of making freeway use less financially attractive – especially to shippers – while providing a revenue stream to speed construction of alternative rail and transit options. They could also be used to manage traffic flow by congestion pricing.

    In an ideal world, that would be a no-brainer. In Michigan, it’s highly unlikely.

  • Restless Urbanist

    This proposal is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. What would happen to Detroit and its commuters if they spent half of that money to build housing in the downtown. Instead of funding a single lane of highway, they could actually revive the city, encourage growth, and attract much needed tax dollars in an existing city.

  • Maybe planners in Michigan and Detroit think the future will turn out to be shaped like this:

  • Wanderer

    Americans love technofixes like driverless cars. The dream of a driverless car fleet allows the fantasy that we can all go on driving as much as we want, but be safe and not hurt the environment. Jarrett Walker at Human Transit has pointed out how unlikely this is.

  • John Wallace

    I think this project would make much more sense if it combined a rail system with a freeway.  It would make sense to connect Wayne State University with the University of Michigan as a research center and driver of economic development.  Thinking car only is an outdated concept.  It is good to see that bicycles are being given some thought.

  • Really you dumb idiot. Tell that to Toronto which has an 18 lane highway in the 401 and still has public transportation. Also tell it to Los Angeles which has the 405 with 12 lanes. This highways will only be 8 lanes . Time to stop making it roads vs public transportation. We can have both as Toronto and LA have

  • Yes a freeways that drives through Detroit, oh wait dummy the freeway is already there they just want to widen it like the wide freeways you have their in Chicago that are 8-10 lanes.

  • Like Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago and every other city.

  • It is not a new freeway dumbo, it is widening a current freeways. CAN YOU LOONIES READ.

  • You dummy cars will never go away and roads will continue to be widened like the freeways in Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto, yes Toronto the so called public transportation city. yes Toronto widened the 401 to 18 lanes back in the 70s and now they built a new highway that is toll north of the 401,

  • Hey you idiot, they will not downsize transportation. You are crying about widening to an 8 lane highway. Where were you when Toronto the so called city of public transportation widened the 401 to 18 lanes including express and collector lanes? Where were you when Chicago another public transportation city widened its freeways. To 8-10 lanes. h and where were you when LA widened the 405 to 12 lanes.


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