Friday, January 26, 2024

Guest Opinion: Don't Widen US-23 - Highway Expansion is Bankrupting our State!

Editor's note: This is a guest opinion by Adam Goodman, adapted from a blog post he wrote for If you're interested in sharing an opinion, reach out to or drop us a DM on twitter.

On Wednesday, in Governor Whitmer’s State of the State address, we once again heard about “fixing the damn roads”. However, MDOT’s own data clearly shows that conditions are getting worse, not better:

MDOT 2024-2028 5YTP, page 20

From 2020-2023, the State of Michigan took on a total of $3.5 Billion in one-time bond debt to accelerate some road-work projects. These “Rebuilding Michigan” bonds did - temporarily - stabilize our statewide pavement conditions. However, the money is about to run out; after that, conditions are expected to worsen dramatically.

In fact, a recent study concluded we have a multi-billion dollar annual road funding shortfall. $3.5 Billion in one-time funding was never going to be enough - we need that kind of money every year.

We should ask ourselves, though: Why are our roads so expensive to maintain? Why do we have such an egregious funding shortfall? While there are many contributing factors, the most fundamental reason is quite simple: we’ve massively overbuilt our road and highway networks, and we keep doing it!

MDOT I-375 Reconnecting Communities Project

To understand this better, let’s look at a project that’s taking a different approach: I-375 in Detroit. MDOT proposes to remove the freeway and replace it with a surface road. There are many problems with their proposal, to be sure.

However, if we consider it very narrowly, from a fiscal perspective, it’s a good long-term investment: it’s reducing total pavement area and eliminating many expensive-to-maintain bridges and other structures. It will reduce long-term maintenance costs for our state.

With our huge road-funding shortfall, it seems clear we should be doing this sort of project - right-sizing and simplifying our highway network - everywhere possible...

… but we are doing the exact opposite. In the last decade, we’ve been widening seemingly half the freeways in Southeast Michigan! These projects are enormously expensive and destructive - e.g. widening a mere 7 miles of I-94 in Detroit will cost over $3 Billion, which is almost the entire amount of the aforementioned “Rebuilding Michigan” bonds. Even worse, though, they will increase maintenance and repair costs for future generations of Michiganders.

Thanks to decades of this unbridled highway expansionism, Michigan’s total annual Vehicles Miles Traveled (VMTs) have increased by 65% since 1980 (as of 2019), according to the Federal Highway Administration. Meanwhile, our population has only grown by about 9%. This is unsustainable, in every sense of the word.

Similarly, some estimates suggest our developed land area has sprawled out by 50% over the same time period:

Michigan Municipal League, Let’s fix the damn roads for ALL the damn modes

Looking at this, it’s no wonder everything’s crumbling in this state! Not just roads and highways, but water, sewer, power lines - you name it. We have to maintain as much as 50% more infrastructure with almost the same population of taxpayers we had back in 1980.

Highways, though, are key in enabling this sprawl, thanks to a phenomenon known as induced demand.

Transportation 4 America, Driving Down Emissions, page 12

This is a ruinous cycle for our communities, our state, and our global climate.

In pursuit of climate action, some of our local leaders are trying to break that cycle. Both the City of Ann Arbor’s A2Zero plan and Washtenaw County’s Resilient Washtenaw plan have established goals to reduce VMTs by 50% in the coming years… but we will never achieve these goals if we continue widening our highways. And yet, widening US-23 is exactly what MDOT is proposing to do, in a study they're conducting right now!

MDOT US-23 Improvement Project Study

In fact, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute’s SHIFT calculator, widening 7 miles of US-23 can be expected to increase our county’s VMTs by as many as 44 million miles per year, accounting for as many as 400,000 metric tons of added CO₂ emissions by 2050. It’s also worth noting that these calculations hold true regardless of whether the new lanes are general purpose lanes, HOV lanes, or any other type.

MDOT US-23 Improvement Project Study

For all these reasons, all three proposed widening options for US-23 must be rejected. Our communities and our state literally cannot afford to keep widening all our highways!

Take action today to put a stop to this wasteful, unnecessary, and climate destroying project.

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