Monday, June 17, 2024
InfrastructureMichiganMovements & Organizing

In The Fight Against Highway Widening, Advocacy Works.

MLive reported yesterday that MDOT’s long-touted plan to widen US-23 for the sake of widening US-23 is officially dead. Proposals that included the addition of a new travel lane, a new HOV lane, and a “flex shoulder lane system” (whatever that is) have all reportedly been discarded in favor of alternatives that include a better nonmotorized transportation route and, potentially, a dedicated transit lane.

One potential solution for the redesign of US-23 is the addition of a transit-only lane. To longtime infrastructure advocates in the state of Michigan, it’s astounding– and potentially an encouraging sign of good things to come.

Some lessons learned:


Organizing Works

It is possible to organize community support through many avenues. In this case, the US-23 project relied on a combination of support from municipal stakeholders, advocacy from citizens and volunteers (who amassed a huge petition opposing the expansion), and additional support from professional and technical advocates proposing alternatives. As we must frequently answer questions that society asks us, like, “what can one person to do to stop something?” the Ann Arbor city council, in voting unanimously in favor of a resolution opposing the expansion (even though the council has no direct jurisdiction over the management or funding of US-23), shows that it can be done. Even against a legendarily orthodox, regressive agency like MDOT.

A long-planned expansion to US-23 in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County is officially dead, thanks to the well-organized advocacy of a diverse set of stakeholders.

Provide Alternatives, Provide Proof

A colleague of mine once said that it’s not enough for advocates to say “no” to something– that we must also say “yes” to a better alternative. This differentiates NIMBYs from solution-seekers. In this case, MDOT’s “preferred solutions” encouraged advocates to think about what they’d prefer to a wider highway. We don’t need 3-4 lanes, we can do with two lanes– especially if we add transit connectivity along this route and encourage alternative forms of transportation. One key point in the opposition was the factual reality that adding lanes is unlikely to decrease VMT, which is a key objective of city council in the quest toward decarbonization and reducing reliance on single-occupant vehicles.

Numerous other major thoroughfare redesigns are in the works. MDOT will be widening I-75 and I-94, but in the decades that it will take to complete these, we hope that the state will have discovered many more solutions other than just building more roadway that it frankly can’t afford to maintain. The Gratiot Avenue redesign and the Michigan Avenue redesign are two projects that are currently underway, both of which will substantially revamp two of Detroit’s major axial thoroughfares. The silver lining to Detroit’s staggering population decline in the past 60 years is the fact that MDOT is finally presented with lower ADT/VMT numbers that will allow it to conceive options to build, say, a street with two or four travel lanes rather than one with seven lanes. This also allows us to consider ample ranges of other options like bike lanes and bus lanes.


Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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