Metro Detroit’s Highway Fixation Explains Why Our Infrastructure Is Broken

Photo:  Ken Lund
Photo: Ken Lund

A new report from Detroit’s regional planning agency highlights the terrible condition of roads in the city and its suburbs.

The Southeast Michigan Regional Council of Governments (SEMCOG) reports that 41 percent of the Detroit area’s major roads are in poor condition. Another 40 percent are in fair condition, meaning less than 20 percent are in good condition.

SEMCOG is nakedly using its report as an appeal for more money. But more money won’t fix the problem. All those roads in disrepair are a sign of how badly SEMCOG has managed the resources at its disposal, and the agency still hasn’t learned its lesson.

At this very moment, SEMCOG is planning to pour $4 billion into widening two highways — I-75 and I-94 — that feed into Detroit’s wealthy northern suburbs. Those highway expansions will generate more traffic, adding to the strain on other roads, while the region squanders billions that could have gone into maintaining existing infrastructure.

But SEMCOG’s propaganda is working. In its coverage of the road conditions report, The Detroit Free Press runs through a litany of ways to get more money for roads — including raising local taxes, hoping for more federal funds, or transferring money from other state priorities. Reallocating billions of dollars from a terrible highway expansion project never gets mentioned.

It’s not like the “more money” approach hasn’t already been tried. Reporter Christina Hall notes that the state legislature “approved $175 million extra this year for roads.” That follows a 2015 effort that increased road spending with $600 million in new taxes and fees.

SEMCOG’s Bill Anderson tells the Free Press that metro Detroit has been spending about $400 million a year on roads, but they “will continue to deteriorate at a faster rate than we can fix them.” He estimates that the region needs $1.6 billion a year just to bring its major roads into a state of good repair — four times the current rate of spending.

Detroit can’t afford to quadruple its spending on roads. But the region sorely needs to improve how it allocates existing resources. Too bad SEMCOG never has to defend its decisions to neglect maintenance in favor of highway expansion.

  • Block E

    You’ve got the wrong guy.

    SEMCOG is not an agency, it’s a council of local governments from Southeast Michigan who got their revenue sharing money raided by the State. MDOT is a state agency who the state keeps raising money for, only to use it to plug holes later and brag about tax cuts.

  • You Know!

    Time to have a moratorium on widening and new roads!! Just fix what we now have!!

  • Joe Linton

    Sounds a lot like L.A. streets – there’s a $4B backlog – but the city keeps widening streets (and the county/state keep widening highways). Channeling Strong Towns: if you find yourself in a hole, it’s probably best to start solving the problem by stopping digging yourself deeper.

  • Bryan K.

    Yeah SEMCOG is very much the messenger in this case. It’s a shame that the political capital goes to support these projects, though.

  • 1980Gardener

    The policy likely arises from a desire to be responsive to citizen requests, and really begs the question – do transport agencies give people what they want and what people will use (more highway lanes) or do they seek to lead people to alternatives?

  • Brandon

    That’s not how funding works at the federal level or State level. All decisions on highway spending are made at the state level by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). SEMCOG is the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for metro Detroit.

    SEMCOG is required to either approve or reject proposals from MDOT. This is a prime reason for MPO to exist. but they don’t have the choice to use the $4 Billion going toward highway expansion for any other purpose. If they reject it they would have to explain to the region why $4 billion (a lot of good paying jobs) wasn’t taken.

    This is a bigger problem that SEMCOG’s decision. The issue is how federal funds go though the state DOTs, and how locals don’t really get a say on how funds are used. Essentially the MPO is just a formality and excessive red tape, for decisions made at the state and federal level.

  • Brandon

    They have gotten far more requests to fix the existing roads. This is still a response to travel modeling and perceived congestion. The federal Highway administration has requirements about travel reliability and about conditions of the interstate.

    Other roads throughout the state are severely underfunded at the expense of lowering interstate travel times. Its misguided priorities at the state and federal level.

  • NK

    Then explain away the $4 billion… Change how things are done.


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