Opponents of I-94 widening say use money elsewhere

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — Opponents of the widening of Interstate 94 gathered Wednesday in Midtown to put pressure on state transportation officials and the governor to divert more than $2 billion slated for the project to other uses, such as fixing Michigan's crumbling roads and the city's inefficient transit system.

The Public Interest Research Group in Michigan, an advocacy organization based in Ann Arbor, said it planned to deliver more than 200 photo petitions and letters to Gov. Rick Snyder's office Wednesday.

Organizers say they are building on the momentum created by legislators, transit advocates and local business owners in the city who say it will destroy neighborhoods and businesses. And to punctuate their efforts, several of those gathered at a news conference in the basement of the historic United Sound Systems Recording Studios, which could be torn down if the expansion goes through, called the governor's office in front of reporters.

"This project is a prime example of the unnecessary and expensive highway expansion that is a little more than a waste of taxpayers dollars," said Annalise Dobbelstein, campaign organizer at PIRGIM. She was flanked by state Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak; Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, and Wayne County Commissioner Tim Killeen. "We are here to speak out in one voice to tell the governor to stop this project and instead use these much-needed resources to fixing the real needs of the community, which are going unmet."

The construction will remove 12 family homes and two apartment buildings in the area around the recording studios, Dobbelstein said.

The opponents say the Michigan Department of Transportation's estimate that the number of miles motorists travel annually will increase at least by 11 percent by 2025 is wrong and outdated.

But Rob Morosi, a spokesman for MDOT, said that 80 percent of the project involves reconstructing and modernizing I-94 to make it more safe. The freeway was built in the 1950s.

A bill introduced Wednesday by Republican Rep. Ben Glardon of Owosso would change the Michigan Department of Transportation’s bridge-inspection policy from an inspection every two years to inspections based on risk.

The federal government, Morosi said, will reimburse 80 percent of the cost. The money is earmarked only for I-94.

Still, Townsend said there is a "better way" and the answer is "to invest in alternatives that don't involve adding lanes, adding capacity to a system that we already don't have the resources to maintain."

Townsend said the I-94 project should be viewed in the context of Proposal 1, the controversial sales tax measure to repair the state's roads, which also raises money for education, police and fire, and transportation.

He said that "projects like this that have not been properly vetted, that are relying on decades old information about transportation patterns in this state" are giving people reason to question how the state spends its money when roads are in such sorry shape.

"Widening freeways is a policy straight out of the 1960s," Townsend said.

Morosi said that MDOT is studying ways to minimize the impact on communities and will be hosting public meetings this summer.

"They (opponents) are claiming that our thinking is archaic, but safety cannot be archaic. Safety is a priority for us," Morosi said. "This isn't just a project to add capacity just to add capacity. This is a project to make it safer and leverage federal dollars."

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