I-94 Expansion: Controversial SEMCOG Vote Passes, Will Widen Freeway Through Detroit (UPDATE)

A proposed freeway widening that would cut through Detroit's most up-and-coming neighborhood had residents and transit activists howling for alternatives -- with little recourse.

SEMCOG, a regional governance board encompassing seven counties across Southeast Michigan, met Thursday afternoon to approve the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan. That vision will ultimately allocate $36 billion in funds over 25 years to the area's roads, freeways, highways, buses and proposed light rail, including extensive work on I-94 and I-75. The plan was passed, despite impassioned public comment begging for alternatives, and a motion to temporarily remove the most controversial aspects of the transit plan.

Particular controversy has emerged over one aspect of the plan, which would widen the I-94 freeway by one lane in each direction, along with adding a network of service lanes on either side. Plans also call for removing many of the aging pedestrian and auto bridges stretching across its width, some that wouldn't be replaced.

Public comment at the meeting was overwhelmingly opposed to the widening of the freeway, according to reports.

The I-75 freeway, stretching northward from Detroit and south to Toledo and beyond, would also be widened north of Eight Mile Road in Oakland County.

The east-west I-94 freeway connects motorists all the way from Port Huron to Ann Arbor and further. It's a significant transit route for commuters and , and it is often choked by traffic overflow in Detroit during the morning and evening rush hours. As reported in an earlier HuffPost Detroit story, I-94 is also home to the state of Michigan's busiest unsound bridge span, which crosses Second Avenue. According to a report prepared by Transportation of America, 14 spans wielding their way across I-94 from French Road to West Grand Boulevard are now rated structurally deficient. The Second Avenue Bridge would be among the number of improvements in the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan.

The SEMCOG transportation plan being voted on Thursday would allocate around $2.7 billion for the I-94 expansion between I-96 and Connor, and $1.3 billion for the I-75 widening. The project could stretch over the next decade and be done in pieces as funding becomes available, the Detroit News reports.

Some are questioning whether that money would be better spent elsewhere. Demonstrators even took to street outside Greektown's Atheneum Hotel in protest, where the meeting was held Thursday afternoon.

"The I-94 and I-75 expansions were initially conceived in the 1990s, when metro Detroit’s traffic and population were projected to grow indefinitely, and gas cost less than two dollars per gallon," wrote Joel Batterman, one of the representatives of the "Fix It First" rally, in a statement sent to The Huffington Post. "SEMCOG now predicts that the region’s population and traffic levels will remain stable through 2040, but the two expansion projects remain on the books." Among the groups represented outside the meeting are members of MOSES, the Sierra Club, Transportation Riders United (TRU), the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Detroit Sound Conservancy and East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC). They're advocating that funds go toward repairs of existing roads and freeways. But onlookers can hear their message straight from the horse's mouth -- specifically, the "Highway Trojan Horse" appearing outside the SEMCOG meeting.

The I-94 expansion, in particular, has rankled transit supporters. Conan Smith, a Washtenaw County Commissioner, is the Executive Director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. In a blog he penned for The Huffington Post, Smith advanced a number of alternatives that $600 million in costs could buy, the amount he estimated for the expansion plans alone. Maintenance for existing roads, proper public transit planning to help fix Metro Detroit's most congested motor vehicle areas ... or even (gasp!) a functioning bus rapid transit system (BRT), a project that has been championed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

"The best BRT systems run on dedicated lanes to elevated stations -- like trains with rubber tires. These road dollars could be used to build that system, potentially giving thousands of commuters a choice other than contributing to traffic," Smith wrote. "Early estimates suggest that $600 million would build us the best BRT route in the nation."

Midtown resident Tommy O'Flynn wrote an op-ed that also brought up the idea of funding a BRT system for Metro Detroit, albeit as part of another, less likely kind of 2040 transportation plan. His idea? Fund the $500 million Bus Rapid Transit system proposed by Snyder, and with the rest, "purchase a moped for each of the 4.7 million people who live in the seven counties represented by SEMCOG."