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Highway Revolts Break Out Across the Midwest

The evolution of state and regional transportation agencies is painfully slow in places like Missouri and Ohio, where officials are plowing ahead with pricey highway projects conceived of decades ago. But plenty of Midwesterners have different ideas for the future of their communities, and they aren’t shy about speaking up.

Protesters picket outside the headquarters of the Southeast Michigan Regional Council of Governments against plans to spend $4 billion on two highway widenings. Image: Transit Riders Union

One after another, residents of major Midwestern cities have challenged highway projects in recent months. People in Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Oklahoma City have reached the conclusion that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on road widenings might not be in their communities’ best interests.

And it’s not just a few activists. Challenges have come from people like Council Member Ed Shadid in Oklahoma City, institutions like the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, and local governments like the city of Maplewood, just outside St. Louis.

Detroiters held signs outside a meeting of their regional planning agency earlier this month, picketing plans for $4 billion worth of highway expansion projects. Though the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments ultimately green-lighted the plans, members of the agency had to sit through two hours of negative public comments first. Not only was the public moved to speak out, so were the city of Detroit and the county of Washtenaw, which officially opposed the project.

And in Oklahoma City, the grassroots group Friends of a Better Boulevard has twice fought back state DOT plans to install a wide, highway-like boulevard in a developing area near the city’s downtown. As we reported this week, the FHWA recently intervened on the group’s behalf and forced ODOT to consider a proposal to restore the street grid instead of building a new road.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, environmental and civil rights groups may soon obtain a court injunction against a $1.7 billion interchange outside Milwaukee, on the grounds that project sponsors did not consider its potential impact on sprawl and transit-dependent communities. And in Cleveland, a few scrappy activists and the Sierra Club are opposing a $100-million-per-mile roadway that would displace 90 families on the city’s southeast side.

Now St. Louis has a highway battle on its hands. In many ways, this fight echoes the other protest movements. The South County Connector — like Cleveland’s “Opportunity Corridor” — is a “zombie” highway project. It was first conceived in 1957. The original concept was for an “inner belt expressway.” Its stated purpose is to “improve connectivity between south St. Louis County, the City of St. Louis, and central St. Louis County” and “improve access to Interstates 44, 64, 55, and 170.”

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Can the Feds Fix Detroit’s Uniquely Terrible Transit System?

There is no better evidence of the sharp social divisions that continue to haunt metro Detroit than the appalling state of its transit system.

When it comes to public transportation, residents of the city of Detroit and suburbanites live in a state of government sanctioned apartheid. They ride fully separate systems, with fully separate sets of maps and noncooperating administrations.

Can Detroit and its suburbs cooperate on a regional transit system in order to draw $300 million in federal funding for light rail? Photo:

Here, urban-suburban tensions are so intense, multiple tries over decades have failed to produce a unified regional transit system. Instead, the suburbs are served by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) and the city of Detroit is served by the Detroit Department of Transportation.

And it’s not just a logistical nightmare for riders, it’s a major obstacle to the region’s economy. There is no regional vision for transit, because Detroit — unlike every other major city in the country — still lacks a regional transit system.

But now the federal government is stepping in to help remedy the situation and it’s holding a $300 million bargaining chip. The Federal Transit Administration recently called experts together to brainstorm ways to improve and unify Detroit’s transit system, and Crain’s Detroit reports that FTA chief Peter Rogoff has followed that event up with closed-door meetings to help bring about regional solution. Apparently, the federal government has some concerns about turning over the grant funds needed to realize Detroit’s Woodward Corridor light rail plans with the transit system in its current state.

For one, the light rail line is intended to extend beyond the city limits into some of the northern suburbs.

“[An RTA] has to happen for the project to achieve its broader utility,” Rogoff told Crain’s. Rogoff also told Crain’s he was concerned that Detroit would raid money from bus transit service in order to support the rail expansion, which is prohibited under the terms of the federal transit grants.

Meanwhile, like most transit systems across the country, both of metro Detroit’s are suffering. But the redundancies that are part of Detroit’s two-system solution only worsen the landscape for the region’s carless masses.

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Feds Call “All Hands On Deck” For Detroit Transit

FTA Chief Peter Rogoff leads a panel of transit experts in Detroit. Photo courtesy of USDOT.

For the last two days, transit experts from around the country have been hunkered down in Detroit to devote their collective expertise to making the Motor City a better city for transit.

The Federal Transit Administration convened the panel, which included current and former transit agency leaders from Salt lake City, Denver, Portland, Atlanta and Dallas. The meeting was to focus on the planned Woodward Avenue light rail project, which received a $25 million TIGER grant, to envision a “bright future” for Detroit transit. Bickering between private donors and public officials over the design of the rail line (curb-running versus center-running trains) and conflict between the primary transit providers in Detroit have created problems for the project, and were likely a reason the feds decided to step in with some assistance from above.

Of course, the leaders that came together to advise Detroit come from very different cities with their own sets of issues, but none with the complex set of challenges besetting Detroit: an unemployment rate triple the national average, the highest foreclosure rate in the country, more than a quarter of its property vacant, a 25 percent drop in population over the past decade, and most of the region’s jobs well outside the city limits, with no public transportation to get there. Can a city like Portland really be of any help?

“Given the current technical capacity, as well as the lack of experience, as well as the extraordinary needs in Detroit, we wanted to treat this project differently, and sort of attack the problems collectively, rather than just wait to see if the city can attack them themselves,” FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff told Streetsblog.

Dan Lijana, a spokesperson for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, said that although Detroit’s transit system will undoubtedly look very different from the other cities’ systems, there were some concrete things they wanted to learn from others’ experience: how to space transit stops, how to design the routes, and, especially, how to foster economic development along the corridor.

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Compromise Over Detroit Light Rail Gets Thumbs Up from Advocates

A wrestling match between private investors and the transit community in Detroit has ended in compromise.

A rendering of the Detroit light rail concept. Photo: Detroit Options for Growth Study

Detroit leaders have moved to run the city’s Woodward Light Rail along the center of the street throughout most of its nine-mile course. The line will be oriented along the curb, with more frequent stops, beginning when it enters the central business district.

The city announced yesterday that Mayor Dave Bing had signed off on the plan with the Federal Transit Administration, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The position of the train — center- or curb-running — and the number of stops has been a point of contention between the city and private investors, who had committed $100 million to the $500 million project.

Investors were interested in improving the real estate market and development opportunities along Woodward Avenue. They supported curb running with frequent stops.

But the city’s motivation was to improve transportation outcomes in a transit-starved city where many lack access to private automobiles. City officials told the Free Press that 90 percent of the public supported the center-running option, which is considered to be safer and faster.

In light of the decision, transit advocate Joel Batterman, creator of the Transport Michigan blog and producer of the viral Lego-man rap video advocating for center-running rail, said he is pleased.

“I think in general it’s a good compromise,” he said. “It was always going to be curb running in the central business district.”

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Detroit: The Return of the Repressed (Bicycling Culture)

big_empty_downtown_intersection_8342.jpgDetroit's once bustling streets are a bicyclist's paradise now, wide open and empty.

Visiting the ghostly motor city these days is an eye-opening and surprisingly inspiring experience. The city has fallen from more than 2 million residents a generation ago to around 800,000 today. A great deal of the land area where homes and factories once filled the blocks are now expansive vacant lots, masquerading as greenways in this wet June, filled with grasses and wildflowers. Some of these vacant lots have been converted into urban farms, but the larger majority is simply empty, reverting to some version of nature. Wild pheasants skitter across the vacant lots while songbirds, from bright red cardinals to brilliant yellow finches, fill the trees and bushes with their cheerful sounds.

wild_pheasant_8384.jpgWild pheasant runs across empty lot in east Detroit.