Michigan Senate OKs 75 mph speeds, local roads plan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Wednesday signed off on a proposal that would allow speed limits to jump from 70 miles per hour to 75 mph on at least 600 miles of rural freeways within the next year.

The main measure in the five-bill package, approved in a 28-8 vote, also calls for speed limits of up to 65 mph on at least 900 miles of state trunk line highways, up from 55 mph.

The legislation would only allow the speed increases on highways where the state Department of Transportation and Michigan State Police conduct traffic safety and engineering studies and conclude that at least 85 percent of motorists are already driving at those speeds.

“We’ll see some roads change potentially by next summer,” said sponsoring Rep. Bradford Jacobsen, R-Oxford, who expects the House to sign off on various Senate changes this week and send the legislation to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk.

A study conducted for the state Department of Transportation identified hundreds of potential rural highway miles that could be candidates for 75 mph speed limits, many of them located in northern Michigan.

But the department “will still need to develop a formalized process for final recommendations,” spokesman Jeff Cranson said in an email.

Likely candidates include Interstate 75 in northern Michigan, the freeway portion of U.S. 131 that begins in north Kent County and runs toward Manton, and U.S. 127 from near Clare to where it connects with I-75 in Crawford County, Cranson said.

Jacobsen, who initially proposed allowing rural freeway speeds of up to 80 mph, has fought critics who say higher speed limits will lead to more crashes and deaths.

“Right now the typical speed on the expressway in Michigan is about 78 miles an hour,” he said. “We’re going that fast now. It’s ridiculous to say that changing what the sign says is going to kill more people.”

But the legislation will do just that, said Steven Gursten, an auto accident attorney who heads Michigan Auto Law.

He pointed to a 1990 study by a University of Michigan researcher showing fatal crashes increased nearly 20 percent when the state raised its rural highway speed limits from 55 mph to 65 mph in 1987.

“I’m really disappointed,” Gursten said. “The politicians did what they think will make them popular, but we know with absolute certainty that it’s going to cause more people to die in car accidents and more people to be seriously injured.”

Raising speed limits at a time when cellphones and other technology are creating more distracted drivers “is a dangerous combination,” he said.

Supporters say legislation is consistent with the “85th percentile” rule, which posits that motorists drive at speeds they feel safe, traffic is safest when most motorists are traveling at the same rates and higher limits will not automatically lead to faster speeds.

“This is a safety issue,” said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and voted for the proposal. “I know people get confused. They think: How can you say that going faster is safer? It is when you talk about the flow of traffic.”

The five-bill package would also set speed limit rules for rural gravel roads and generally require local communities to keep speed limits consistent with safety and engineering studies.

The Senate on Wednesday also unanimously approved a separate package designed to eliminate local cost-sharing rules for state highway construction projects, requiring the Michigan Department of Transportation to pay any bills not covered by federal funding.

The proposal would spare local governments from having to help construct or maintain roads they do not own, said sponsoring Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, who estimated a savings of $26 million over five years.

“That’s a big win for our local communities,” Knollenberg told reporters after the 37-0 vote.

Snyder vetoed an earlier version of the legislation, calling it “a piecemeal approach to what needs to be a much broader discussion” on local road funding and a formula that dates back to 1951.

Knollenberg considered pursuing a veto override but said he ultimately reached a compromise with the administration on the revised proposal.

The new bill would maintain local cost-sharing requirements for roads like Woodward in Metro Detroit, which is technically a state highway but also serves as a “main street” for some local communities in Oakland County.

Knollenberg’s push to end local highway cost-sharing was spurred by the massive Interstate 75 reconstruction project now underway in Metro Detroit. That project alone could cost Troy, Madison Heights and Royal Oak nearly $20 million over the next decade or more, he said, but those communities would not see much benefit from increased commuter traffic.

The cost-sharing proposal, headed to the House with less than two weeks left in the so-called lame-duck session, would “protect local communities” that are already struggling with funding issues, Knollenberg said.

“They have their own needs to take care of, so the less they have to pay for a road they don’t own, the more they can put into roads they currently have to maintain,” he said.