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Report calls I-94 expansion plan a "highway boondoggle"

Sep 22, 2014

A map of the proposed I-94 expansion project
Credit MDOT

A report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group cites a plan to widen I-94 through the heart of Detroit as one of 11 “highway boondoggles” nationwide.

The planned “mega-project” will add a lane in either direction from midtown Detroit through the city’s east side. It will also connect service drives, widen shoulders and rebuild some bridges along that stretch of the highway.

The whole job is projected to cost $2.9 billion, and take almost 25 years.

The Michigan Department of Transportation says the project is needed to relieve congestion along the state’s busiest stretch of I-94. But critics maintain the plan doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons.

Megan Owens, executive director of the Detroit-based group Transportation Riders United, says traffic volumes have actually stagnated or declined nationwide for about 15 years.

“It’s been long enough that this appears to be a new trend,” Owens says. “And yet MDOT and the Federal Highway Administration haven’t changed their policies and their investments accordingly.”

Owens and other critics call the project’s price tag “extreme,” and say the money could be better spent repairing existing roadways, or investing in mass transit.

“Certainly, repair the road,” Owens says. “But widening is not a good use of dollars.”

Critics also point out the highway expansion is based on traffic data and projections from 2003, and an environmental impact statement from 2004. Some groups have asked for MDOT to perform a new environmental assessment based on more recent data.

Owens says it’s not too late for MDOT to “re-evaluate the scope of the project” and forego the expansion plans.

MDOT disagrees, however. “The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has approved the EIS,” the agency says on its website. “The project must be built as shown and approved in the EIS. To do otherwise would require a lengthy restudy process.”

MDOT describes the project’s overall mission as an effort to “improve the capacity and condition of the existing I-94 roadway and interchanges to support the mobility needs of local and interstate commerce as well as national and civil defense.” It cites the poor condition of the “existing facility” as the primary need for action.

The project will be financed using 90% federal funds, and 10% state and local funds. The city of Detroit must contribute 1.25% of the total cost.