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Highway Expansion

‘A Petition, a Website, and a T-shirt’: Ann Arbor Advocates Share Tips for Fighting Highway Expansions

Ann Arbor advocates helped get a destructive and wasteful highway expansion thrown out — and they have some ideas on how you can, too.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has rescinded a proposal to expand a highway — and the advocates who helped propel that victory are sharing their lessons for communities across the U.S. fighting similar battles. 

In late May, transportation officials in the Great Lakes State announced that they would no longer consider adding a lane to a seven-mile stretch of U.S.-23 in both directions near Ann Arbor, quashing a plan that experts say would have unleashed a flood of drivers, despite a local commitment to slash vehicle miles traveled 50 percent in just 10 years. Instead, the agency is studying options that would add separated bike lanes, improve sidewalks, and add wider shoulders to be used as busways during peak traffic.

Area media credited that victory to city councilors and local transportation commissioners, as well as a group of citizen advocates working under the name Trains Not Lanes to encourage the DOT to pursue not just rail, but also a wide range of shared and active transportation solutions to region’s travel challenges — and to ditch highway expansion projects that they know won’t work. 

“One of my collaborators, Lauren Hood, says something very profound: ‘You can't just be against something, you have to be for something,’" said Rob Goodspeed, one of founders of Trains Not Lanes. “We liked how [the name] describes a direction we as a community want to go in to meet our transportation demands; it resulted in some slight confusion, [because] ‘trains,’ for us, stands for all public transit, and also multimodal active transmission options. But once we get beyond that, [it worked].”

Trains Not Lanes formed after Goodspeed saw co-founder, Adam Goodman deliver a searing five-minute presentation at a local urbanism event about why “widening highways doesn’t make sense” — and why the U.S. 23 project, in particular, would be a huge mistake. 

In addition to adding even more pavement to a system that Michigan already can’t afford to maintain as the tax base stagnates — the state’s population has only grown nine percent since 1980, while driving has grown 65 percent — he pointed out that expanding the road would essentially be “climate arson,” showering southwest Michigan in greenhouse gases, harmful particulate emissions, and noise pollution. 

Even before Trains Not Lanes launched, Ann Arbor city council members were wary of those impacts, passing a unanimous resolution last October for "a design for the project area that does not include adding lanes or other actions that will increase private vehicle traffic volume in the project area."

The study corridor, via MDOT.

But advocates in the audience for Goodman's presentation feared that call might fall on deaf ears at the metropolitan planning organization, which represents rural communities who believe — albeit incorrectly — that their commutes would be sped up by a wider highway, as well people who live within that highway's footprint.

“As is typical of MPOs, it has a very anti-urban bias — because all of the rural townships all have one vote, and the city of Ann Arbor has one vote, and [institutions like] University of Michigan have one vote, too,” added Goodspeed. "So we really used the structure of the MPO to organize our advocacy."

The moment Trains Not Lanes was born, it hit the ground running by establishing strong branding and communications channels — two simple but crucial steps that many advocates overlook.

"You need a website, you need a public petition, and you need a T-shirt," adds Goodspeed. "Because otherwise, you're just somebody with an opinion.”

That petition garnered 1,346 signatures, simultaneously proving how many Ann Arbor citizens opposed a wider freeway and providing supporters with a simple, at-a-glance list of key decision makers they should contact and public meetings they should attend if they wanted to make a little more noise. It also listed a single contact media outlets could use to reach Trains Not Lanes advocates anytime they needed a quick quote about the opposition to the project, or help imagining what a better vision for the region might be.

From there, the organizers launched a strategically escalating strategy to win their cause if the petition didn't move the needle. Step two involved "dozens and dozens" of meetings and a barrage of emails to lobby the individual members of the MPO, encouraging even small, overlooked townships to oppose the expansion if the project came down to a vote. Step three was lobbying the legislature and the governor's office to intervene — and step four, had it been necessary, would have been a legal challenge.

Critically, the group began making strides on all these fronts from the beginning, rather than sitting on their hands; they'd already made plans to work with law students to scrutinize the project for violations under the National Environmental Protection Act when the MDOT decision came down. And along the way, they focused on learning what really inspired the expansion to help evolve their strategy.

“It's funny, because there's this whole environmental process where you're supposed to publicly develop the Purpose and Need Statement for your project – but usually, that has very little to do with what's actually motivating the project," said Goodman. "And if you can figure out what's actually motivating the project, that'll tell you a lot about strategy, your chances of success as well as what your strategy should be.”

One of the revised design alternatives after widening was taken off the table; MDOT via Trains not Lanes.

Unlike past Michigan highway expansions that the group says were the "pet projects" of area politicians, Goodman and his peers quickly learned that the US-23 effort had more to do with replacing aging bridges in the region than mitigating congestion — though traffic engineers still had the problematic impulse to go ahead and widen highways when they're firing up the cranes anyway.

“They're saying, ‘Well, if we're gonna replace these bridges, do we need to consider a future-proofing this [road] against future growth?'" added Goodman. "As far as we know … there was no political sponsor saying, ‘We must widen this freeway.’ And that's probably a big part of why things ended up going our way."

The advocates acknowledge that their effort had other advantages, too. Not every city has an ultra-progressive city council like college town Ann Arbor, never mind a transportation commission that understands that widening highways doesn't cure congestion, and major institutions willing to push back. Trains Not Lanes also has an unusually high level of expertise and energy on its side; their founders include a dream team of built environmental professionals, a former city councilor, former transportation and planning commission chairs, and, in Goodman, a tireless advocate who's taking time off from his career to focus on this work full time.

Still, the group says that freeway fighting efforts can win with even fewer privileges behind them — just as they recognize that even the best-organized movements, like those opposing notorious expansions in Portland and Houston, still face daunting uphill battles despite their amazing efforts.

The important thing, members stress, is to keep pushing and evolving your strategy, even if only to give you fuel for the next fight. Trains Not Lanes is already learning of proposed expansions in other Michigan communities, and talking about structural changes that could force the DOT make people-centered transportation first.

“[That’s] absolutely why project sponsors should not put forward projects like this: because it places an unfair burden on communities to advocate for what we feel should be the default in transportation planning," added Goodspeed.

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