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For Detroit's future transporation needs, consider widening the freeways

Oct 21, 2014

For more than a century now, Detroit has been the Motor City: Home of the auto industry; the place that put the world on wheels.

You know that. You also probably know that as a result, Detroit utterly failed to build any kind of decent mass transit.

Other, that is, than a system of badly serviced city buses that don’t even coordinate with the suburban ones. The city is paying for that now, as thousands of adults who lack cars have no easy way to get to jobs in the suburbs. Belatedly, there are efforts to get a rapid transit bus system. There’s also the M1 light-rail project in the city, but these are partial solutions at best.

Now that Detroit is getting close to the end of the bankruptcy process, it makes sense to be thinking about transportation needs for the future. And there’s nothing that makes environmentalists and mass transit enthusiasts crazier than suggesting widening our existing freeways. There’s a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group that indicates a proposal to widen I-94 in Detroit is a “boondoggle” which might actually hurt the city’s recovery by further separating some of the city’s most vibrant areas.

Emotionally, it is easy to agree to be aghast at the thought of turning even more land into concrete ribbons. Paving over paradise. as Joni Mitchell might have sung.

Yet there’s another side to this, which is that the city and state have present and future urgent transportation needs. Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation, told me that in Detroit, there are many segments of the freeways and bridges in severe need of rebuilding.

Nobody thinks paving over the globe is a brilliant idea. But we are going to depend on cars and trucks for a long time to come.

Actually, he didn’t need to tell me that.

I see it every time I drive to Ann Arbor. Cranson added, “If they are to be rebuilt, it only makes sense to plan for future needs. To qualify for federal funds, the projects must meet modern "Federal Highway Administration safety standards."

That, in turn, sometimes means adding things like service lanes and wider shoulders. Cranson, himself a former reporter, agrees we need more mass transit. However, he notes that “there is nothing to indicate that freeways will not remain an important part of metro Detroit’s transportation system,” for the foreseeable future.

Which is obvious, like it or not. However, there is a bill in the state House of Representatives, HB 5883, which would require that I-94 and I-75 stay three lanes forever. State transportation experts told me that this was crazy.

“These are museum-piece freeways,” one said, adding that the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, would require the state to keep rebuilding designs that made sense decades ago, but are outdated today. In fact, I-94 is narrower than it ought to have been in one place because it was built when the Packard plant was still in business.

Nobody thinks paving over the globe is a brilliant idea. But we are going to depend on cars and trucks for a long time to come.

And we need to do the best we can with the world we have, without losing sight of the way we might want it to be.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.