Lawmaker wants to limit highway memorials to first responders, military

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican legislators pushed for legislation reserving state highway memorials only for military members, law enforcement officers and first responders who died in the line of duty during a Tuesday House committee hearing.

The introduction of the bill limiting the roadway nomenclature comes in the wake of a couple of controversial votes in the state Legislature in which some Republican lawmakers voted against highway designations for singer Aretha Franklin and Democratic former state Rep. Julie Plawecki, who died of a heart attack in 2016.

Democratic lawmakers criticized the legislation and defended the move to honor Franklin.

Using the hood of a 1958 pink Cadillac as a desk,  Gov. Gretchen Whitmer  signs the bill that designates part of the Lodge Freeway in Detroit as the Aretha L. Franklin Memorial Highway.

Republican legislators expressed a desire during those votes to reserve highway memorials for fallen first responders or military members.

"The tussle back and forth about road naming" has a "very simple" solution, said Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann. 

O'Malley's legislation would reserve highway memorials for military members, firefighters, police officers, state correctional officers or emergency medical services personnel who died in the line of duty or for a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. But the legislation would reserve a local unit of government’s right to rename streets under their jurisdiction as they see fit.

“If a local community has a favorite son or daughter, that community should honor them,” O’Malley said.

The bill would retain a requirement that a private part pay for the markers, but also require $3,000 to be placed in escrow for management and upkeep of the memorial.

The legislation, if approved, would not take effect until the end of session to allow any current highway renaming bills that might not fit the new criteria to proceed through the Legislature.

The Michigan Department of Transportation opposed the legislation, noting the limits it places on the state in honoring those who might not fit the limited definition proposed in the bill.

Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, observed that the legislation would have stopped the renaming of a portion of M-10 in Detroit earlier this year as the “Aretha Franklin Memorial Highway." 

"The Freeway of Love wouldn’t be the Freeway of Love if this was enacted last year," she said.

O’Malley acknowledged that was the case, but noted Detroit would still be able to rename its streets after Franklin, as it did when it renamed 12th Street as Rosa Parks Boulevard.

“It could be the ‘Big, 4-Lane Street of Love,’” O’Malley said.

During the hearing, Rep. Gary Eisen, R-St. Clair Township, said he approved of the legislation “100%.” Should a future road be named after Eisen, he noted he’d like it to be a road in his hometown anyway.

“I’d rather have it in my own town where they’re going slow, and can see it,” he said.

In March, six House Republicans voted against the renaming of M-10 in honor of Franklin on the grounds that such designations should be reserved for first responders and military veterans who died in the line of duty.

In September, seven House Republicans voted against the renaming of a segment of US-24 in Wayne County in honor of Plawecki, including three lawmakers who in 2017 had voted in favor of renaming a section of US-23 in Presque Isle County after Republican former Rep. Pete Pattalia, who died in a motorcycle crash the same year as Plawecki.

The lawmakers told The News at the time that they had had more time to think on the issue between the votes on Pettalia and Plawecki's memorials.