More beneficial use of highway money



Late in 2013 a brand new interstate highway interchange opened along I-96 at Latson Road near Howell, Michigan. The cost of this single, basic  “diamond-shaped” interchange was $32 million dollars. While many people in suburban Livingston County are probably thrilled with a new exit on I-96, let’s think about the cost for a minute. Thirty-two million dollars? Hummm?

Having passed by that location innumerable times in the past 20 years I don’t ever recall a traffic jam along that six-lane wide stretch of interstate unless there was an accident or bad weather. More likely, paralleling Grand River Avenue is the problem, as a myriad of big boxes have blossomed along it over the years. Shame on all of us planners and the decision makes for allowing that to happen when we know better.

So, how is it decided to address sprawl and congestion on Grand River Avenue? The powers that be decided to read from the same old tired script of building more highway capacity. The problem with this scenario is it will only perpetuate more sprawl and congestion as the “mirage” of more capacity invites more usage and ultimately more sprawl and congestion. In other words, society keeps making the same damn mistake over and over again.

I am not trying to pick on the Latson Road interchange, as it just happens to be the newest addition to the region’s highway network. But the “so-called” experts at MDOT and elsewhere need a wake-up call and it pointed out that they are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by not pursuing more sustainable transportation options to address congestion issues. Perhaps, that’s the point – it is in the best interest of those organizations that are primarily road agencies to create the need for more roads. It’s creates long-term job security.

On the other hand, with $32 million, many medium-sized cities could construct their entire bicycle infrastructure network. My guess is that an impressive start-of-the-art network of paved off-road bike trails, added bike lanes, erected a bike bridge or two, plus added a bunch of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure serving most, if not all of the Howell area could have been built for that tidy sum. Given that more jobs per dollar are created from building new bicycle infrastructure than highway projects, there was a lost opportunity to put more money per capita back into the local economy. Lastly, add in the health and fitness benefits derived from an active transportation network and the Howell area could have also seen health insurance rates/costs decline for area businesses.

Road funding advocates will argue that they are the ones who pay for new highways and interchanges with their taxes. WRONG! Gas taxes and fees only cover 51 percent of the cost of road construction and maintenance. So you are starting off in a giant funding hole that will only get worse with time. Furthermore, since cyclists create less wear and tear on the road infrastructure (less usages and lighter vehicles), the average bicyclist actually contributes approximately $500 more per year to road care and maintenance in the taxes/fees they pay than the average automobile driver.

Instead, Howell has a brand-spanking new highway interchange that given 5 to 10 years tops will be drowning in cars  and a sea of fast food joints, motels, big box retail, and parking lots…lots of parking lots – and we only have ourselves to blame for the mess that we created.
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11 Responses to More beneficial use of highway money

  1. The misgiving I have here is the likelihood that most people shopping at “big box” stores buy enough weight or volume in these trips to require auto transport home for the stuff, if not the people. There are capacious trailers made for bicycles, but they can’t handle everything, and in bad weather are an unattractive option.


  2. Chris Kok says:

    Living within walking distance of a store is also an option. Sure, you won’t be able to fully stock a kitchen for months at a time, but then again it doesn’t take much time to get food for a few days at a time.


    • Rick Brown says:

      I agree, Chris.


    • Jd says:

      You also get the benefit of walking…If you are a planner and haven’t ever lived in a city, plan to vacation in one. Rent a house in a real neighborhood in a real city and realize that it is possible and desirable to have pubs, transit, restaurants, schools, libraries, churches, grocery, book stores, and cool shopping all within a 5-10 minute walk. Include great transit and expand your area to include museums, stadiums, movies, theater… I love my 3200 sq feet (that my LOT) and 2000 sq ft (house) in Seattle.


  3. Nick K says:

    I’m sorry if I sound cynical, but I did t realize Michigan had urban planners. I’m from rural northeast (Tawas), but I now live in Portland and am a planning student. I went back after a couple years and saw the same sprawling developments into South Lyon and Novi in the middle of what was wetlands. I think Michigan’s problem is (sorry) the people. They seem to have this half heart, where they want a better place and would like to see walkability, but they want no sacrifice of their current auto-centric lifestyle. Take away some parking (or as in Ann Arbor, don’t erect new structures fast enough), and you shall face the wrath. If only the same anger was directed toward CONTINUED expansion of their costly road system.

    In Oregon, Goal 12 if the statewide land use and planning goals mandates we don’t have principle reliance on one mode of transit, and this — combined with decent people — is what has saved us from some ugly transportation decisions, like the Mt Hood Freeway.


    • Rick Brown says:

      I think you make a valid point and it’s why education and advocacy are so important to creating a cultural shift. There are more nonmotorized advocates in this state than you might think, but getting beyond a century of car culture takes effort.


  4. I do live within walking distance of several stores which sell regular food, and I walk most of the time, mostly now because I can’t afford much bus fare, let alone the car I don’t have use of. I am sick of the time it wastes. Recently I had to take my shopping cart to take advantage of some sale prices. It was very hard, because despite the better snow clearance of sidewalks where I am, there were still many places with long stretches of bumpy ice, which is really tricky to roll a shopping cart across. There are some grocery items or sale prices which can’t really be taken advantage of unless one has a wheeled conveyance, or a freighter-frame backpack with lashing straps. The only products it would make sense for me to buy on a foot trip are perishables like salad greens, which get eaten quickly and don’t present a burden to transport. Be assured that if I ever get the career I got educated for and deserve, I’m going to buy nearly all of my groceries by car, hopefully in a chain trip involving several other destinations. I did that in the past and am proud of my fuel- and time-efficiency.


    • Chris Kok says:

      Part of your complaint points to the fact that sidewalks need to get the same treatment by municipalities that roads do. Why is it that roads are plowed by the city and not sidewalks? This is just another area where pedestrians are treated as second class citizens.


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