For Annabel Cohen, being stuck in traffic is deadly. She’s hardly thrilled about the first phase of a mega-project to modernize I-75 that began in April and will continue into the fall.
“My job depends on my arriving on time — I can’t be an hour late for a wedding,” says Cohen, owner of Annabel Cohen Cooks Detroit, a catering company. “My experience is that, unless I’m driving in the middle of the night, I won’t take I-75.” Driving her cargo van from her base in Walled Lake to Eastern Market for cheese, specialty produce, or flowers means using her Waze app, the Lodge Freeway, and mile roads. “I’d rather be moving than stopped.”
In mid-April, Cohen catered a reception for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a private thank-you to supporters in Huntington Woods. Like counterweights, the large bowl of hummus and impressive mounds of fresh berries helped to absorb reverberations from the governor’s proposed 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax to fulfill her infamous campaign promise to “fix the damn roads.” Even Michigan Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) says the state needs to spend an additional $2.5 billion on roads by 2021, however the gas tax has been received with words such as “problematic” and “nonstarter.” In its own way, it’s just as exaggerated as the potholes that make Cohen think twice about driving her other vehicle — a Mini Cooper.
Another of Gov. Whitmer’s proposals would reform Public Act 51. The 68-year-old law determines how highway funds go to cities and counties. She would tailor distribution of the extra 45 cents per gallon, favoring urban areas over rural ones.
Overall, the situation’s grimness is indisputable. “In 2010, our roads were in about 91 percent good condition,” says Colin Forbes, Michigan Department of Transportation deputy metro region engineer. “Compared to last year, we’ve dipped down to 79 percent. That’s concerning.”
Forbes is enthusiastic, though, about the future improvements to the nine miles of Oakland County’s Interstate 75, from 13 Mile Road to north of Coolidge Highway, that will rebuild eight bridges, enclose the center median, and add high occupancy vehicle lanes for carpools. This project, one of two huge road-construction jobs affecting Detroiters until November, will let the freeway conduct traffic much like Leonard Slatkin quelling the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s woodwinds.
Interstate 94 is also undergoing a thorough re-do from its original design of the 1940s and build-out of the 1950s. Reconstruction of the entire 6.7-mile stretch from the I-96 interchange to east of Conner Street will entail the laying of a new roadbed and surface and creating a continuous service drive from Conner to Trumbull Avenue. New interchanges are also a part of the package, and rebuilt bridges at Second, Cass, and Brush will incorporate advanced features such as carbon-fiber supports and electronic sensors to enable the bridges themselves to connect to the internet of things.
The freeway improvements are signature projects for MDOT, the results of extensive preparations by hundreds of people over the course of 15 years (and lots of computer modeling). About 165,000 vehicles travel on I-75 each day and 120,000 vehicles on I-94.
Forbes sees it as an “unbelievable transformation,” in part because of the integration of engineering technologies. “I never would have thought we would have different sensors on our bridges to talk to the bridge to tell us what condition it’s in or to be able to have our traffic signals talk to cars,” he says.
Even at this significant rate of regeneration, no one is predicting the re-assumption of national leadership in roadways. By the early 20th century, Detroit had tried a number of concrete pavement experiments. The longest, laid in 1909, was on Woodward Avenue between Six and Seven Mile Roads. It cost $14,000. And the Davison Freeway — the result of a hurry-up wartime construction program — was completed in 1942, becoming the first urban “below-grade” freeway in the United States.
Elsewhere around metro Detroit, streetscaping is moving ahead in various neighborhoods. The city has invested $80 million in bond funding, and projects are underway this upcoming summer and fall on seven streets. The Livernois Avenue makeover started in April with demolition of the existing median. At completion in November, the 1.2-mile stretch between Margareta Avenue and Eight Mile Road will look more appealing, be more tranquil, and better provide for pedestrians and cyclists — not to mention fostering a robust retail environment.
Assessing all this activity, critic Michael Hodges summons up the spirit of architect and planner Albert Kahn, subject of the 2018 biography Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit. As Hodges notes, Kahn was a “big supporter” of streetcars. “He believed in public investment,” Hodges says. The “sharp turn against taxation” would be an enigma to Kahn along with “trying to live in a $100 world on $10 in taxes.”
Being locked into our present freeway paradigm may be less than ideal from some local perspectives. Nevertheless, Hodges says, “I think he would be all in favor of upgrading and would probably argue that mediocre or dilapidated infrastructure would end up hurting everybody.”
If Gov. Whitmer, the legislature, and the City can get things right for the long term, Detroiters will finally be able to stop speaking of “our crumbling roads and bridges.”