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.
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.