Sunday, January 2, 2011

Connecting Detroit to Lansing

First, toll roads

There is talk that Michigan's new governor, Rick Snyder, is in favor of toll roads in Michigan. I caught a piece on NPR the other day, and there was an article on

Now, I'm not entirely sure on the exact federal rules, but it is my understanding that if a state chooses to toll their roads, those roads are not eligible for a federal match (typical state match is 20% of total project cost, feds provide the other 80%). I do think there are exceptions to this rule, however, and the federal government may look kindly on the concept of a state generating more of their own revenue for road construction.

Either way, on a personal level, I am 100% supportive of tolling roads in the State of Michigan as a way of supporting our infrastructure. It is needed as are many other policies to ensure we build a sustainable and efficient transportation system. Toll roads are used throughout the United States, they control congestion, and they force planners to look more holistically at our transportation system.

In Michigan, we have a system of toll-free roads, paid for by a tax on our gas and matching funds from the federal government. With a down economy, people are driving less, fewer trucks are on the road, and cars are getting more fuel efficient. This means less money for our state to support our roads. Furthermore, uncoordinated planning has resulted in an inefficient transportation network with too many access points, too many secondary roads, and more roads per mile per citizen than most states.

Which brings me to the I-96 corridor between Detroit and Lansing.

The problem

I know of several people that commute from Detroit to Lansing on a daily basis. In fact, many of our legislators make this commute to govern our state. I-96 is the chosen corridor, except that things seem to get very busy near the intersection of I-96, 696, and 275 out in Novi, and in the interchanges leading up in both directions. Land use policy has allowed mini shopping areas to develop along exits that are spaced too closely along the corridor, resulting in more traffic accessing the highway system to travel just a short distance.

The results are obvious - congestion, wasted time, wasted fuel, and the obvious environmental impacts from auto emissions.

The opportunity

Nevertheless, the I-96 corridor represents an opportunity to reshape transportation within Michigan around toll roads, smart growth, and even regional transit.

Tolling I-96 would be a complicated and expensive endeavor for Michigan, but it should be worth the effort if planned correctly. Planners will have to decide which tolled exits should act fluidly and which should be treated as commuter plazas. The big challenges will be how to plan off-ramps and tolling areas. Perhaps we can develop a technology that will make tolling areas wireless and less taxing on our time, but our leaders should certainly continue to focus on how land use planning can influence driver behavior to enhance the overall efficiency of our transportation system.

Some other things to think about including high-speed rail

1. Colorado 36 (the road between Denver and Boulder) has commuter stations with bus and car parking practically built into the off ramps of the highway. Could some stops along I-96 and other roads become these type of commuter centers?

2. Direct car pooling incentives. How can we reward travelers financially for efficient behavior?

3. Auto / smart phone technology to pay for tolls and track incentives from utilizing the system.

4. Could toll road fares also be invested in a high-speed rail between Detroit and Lansing (and perhaps to Grand Rapids)? Offering an alternative to automotive use could help reduce congestion in certain areas and will offer a new way to connect these cities. The big challenge here also revolves around land use. There are no rail direct rail corridors between Detroit and Lansing. The state should focus on finding a way to plan a tolled system around integration with a future high-speed rail corridor. The fact that there is no existing rail corridor presents an opportunity for our talented engineers to introduce a new transportation technology that is better and more flexible than rail.

So what's Rick going to do?

Transportation is expensive, and our state's roads are a mess, and we can't let it get worse. We need to find a way to pay for what we built and make it last for a long time. As we explore how to do this, we should find a way to fix our land use issues and planning deficiencies. Our state can't sustain our current development patterns without bankrupting all levels of government. Let's seize the opportunity to diversify our transportation infrastructure and funding mechanisms. The Detroit-Lansing / I-96 is a corridor ripe for experimentation and, unlike I-94 and I-75 which span several states, I-96 is truly a "Michigan" freeway. Let's find a way for our state to make an investment in this corridor so that we grow the connection between these two great cities.