Economic Development and Travel & Tourism

MDOT looks at options for U.S. 131 and I-96

Study is limited in scope, which is disappointing to some.

March 28, 2014
TAGS I-96 / MDOT / U.S. 131
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Adding breadth to a study of portions of U.S. 131 and I-96 would cost the state millions — and maybe even billions — of dollars. Photo by Christopher Pastotnik

Earlier this month the Michigan Department of Transportation held two public meetings to gather feedback regarding stretches of U.S. 131 and I-96. The department is responsible for the preservation of both highways and said that, while no construction timeline has actually been set for either stretch of roadway, it will be necessary in the future.

The meetings are part of initial steps toward any future projects.

“We basically wanted to get their input and their concerns about those two corridors,” said John Richard, communications representative for MDOT.

MDOT is in the middle of an approximately $1 million study considering the stretch of I-96 between Fruit Ridge Avenue and Leonard Street, and between 100th Street and M-57 along U.S. 131. The stretch of U.S. 131 being reviewed receives approximately 100,000 to 120,000 vehicles per day — the highest volume of traffic in the state outside the greater Detroit area. The stretch of I-96 sees volumes of between 40,000 and nearly 60,000 per day.

It is expected the study will be completed within 12 to 18 months. At that point, MDOT will make recommendations for next steps.

During the well-attended meetings, several Grand Rapids residents, including Josh Leffingwell, communications director at West Michigan Environmental Action Council, expressed an interest in seeing an expanded study of U.S. 131 to look at the potential economic benefits of changing the highway’s route so it doesn’t run through downtown Grand Rapids, something MDOT said is not feasible at this time, primarily because of lack of funding.

Leffingwell, however, points out that any monetary investment in the highway should be viewed through a long-term lens.

“What we want to know is, if we are going to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this project over the next 20 years, before we invest all this money into this highway shouldn’t we find out what the true cost of doing that is?” he said.

“Right now, their study is very small,” Leffingwell said. “It’s just looking at the highway and what it would cost to rebuild it, and once it’s rebuilt, what people want. Maybe they want a new off-ramp or maybe this off-ramp wider or on the other side of the street.

“We are saying, ‘Let’s take a moment, step back, and really take a look at all the ramifications of this.’”

Leffingwell said he would like to see MDOT look at other possibilities besides rebuilding U.S. 131, such as the economic development opportunities that might exist if the highway didn’t run along the river through downtown.

“We want to say, ‘Imagine if 131 wasn’t there and that was just a boulevard or a street,’” he said. “How many buildings could go up, how much real estate could become active in our city, what would that do socially by connecting the west side to the river?”

He said his group is not necessarily asking to tear down U.S. 131 or bury it, but rather that MDOT take a look at what could be.

“We just want all options to be on the table,” he said. “If they are going to expand the study and they find that the opportunity costs are high, then look at what it would cost to bury it, to have a boulevard, to divert the highway — what ramifications would that have.

“But if we begin the conversation with ‘This highway is staying and it doesn’t matter what economic differences are, societal differences are — it doesn’t matter,’ we are starting at a point where we’ve already assumed a lot of things.”

Dennis Kent, MDOT planner, doesn’t seem opposed to additional studies but said there isn’t any money to conduct them.

“We don’t have the money to do anything right now other than preservation,” he said. “To make a major change to U.S. 131 from a freeway to something other than a freeway will require looking at transit options, what would happen to the city street grid and the county roads. I think there is some interest in doing some sort of economic study of what would happen to the land around it. It’s way beyond what we are capable of doing.”

Kent said he couldn’t begin to estimate the cost of the studies Leffingwell and others are requesting, but noted that just a full environmental study of the area would cost millions of dollars.

“Last year in Gov. Snyder’s State of the State address, he was calling for an additional $1.3 billion of new annual revenue for not only MDOT but also the county road commissions, the cities and the villages, and that additional $1.3 billion is just to maintain the system we have,” explained Richard.

He added that bringing the stretch of U.S. 131 and the interchanges at Hall, Wealthy and Franklin streets up to current standards has an astronomical price tag, noting they were constructed originally in the 1950s.

Kent said those interchanges have been identified as opportunities for possible upgrades, but he acknowledged that right now, there isn’t any money for those projects either.

“If we had additional revenue we would be maybe doing something different to the Wealthy and Franklin Street interchange areas — that has come up as a problem area quite frequently. There are other areas north of West River Drive toward Rockford that people have had interest in. We have a new outlet mall going in south at 84th and 131; 54th and 131 comes up periodically as an issue.”

Richard said the state has been losing $100 million in revenue each year for the past decade as a result of people driving less. He also said the gas tax has not been increased since 1997.

“What many people don’t realize is, we get 18 cents per gallon,” he explained. “It’s not a percentage; it’s a flat tax. So when gas is $4 a gallon, we still get 18 cents a gallon.”

Kent said as vehicles continue to get better gas mileage and drivers switch to alternative fuel vehicles, as the use of public transportation increases and material costs — such as the price of road salt — go up, the gas tax revenue continues to decline.

“It’s the perfect storm of increases in costs and declining revenue,” he said.

Michigan is currently ranked last in the nation in funding for roadways per capita.

“The main thing is that this study in itself is probably more limited in scope than what people are expecting,” Kent said. “It’s disappointed some people.”

He said that to do a more thorough study in line with what Leffingwell and others have requested would take multiple agencies and significantly more resources and time.

“The intent was not to look at a major change to the transportation system of Kent County and beyond,” he said. “That’s a much broader question. It involves more people and more agencies and it’s very long term.

“That is something that we don’t have the money to study right now, and the cost to actually construct something like that is beyond what we have any money for at the moment.

“In the meantime, we still have to keep up what we have,” he said.

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