Madison Heights city officials concerned about I-75 expansion

Issues include costly local share, changes in project schedule

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published November 7, 2015

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MADISON HEIGHTS — The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is planning to widen and improve Interstate 75 from Hazel Park to Auburn Hills, and city officials in Madison Heights are very concerned about the project’s accelerated schedule and the way it’s being funded.

“The city has been generally supportive of the project, but council and staff feel the need to object to how it’s being handled,” said Madison Heights City Manager Ben Myers. 

The funding concern is the burden on the small- and medium-sized communities adjacent to the project area. The city feels this is unfair since I-75 has local, regional and even international implications when one considers Canada, so there are many stakeholders who will benefit from reduced traffic congestion. The city believes the financial burden should be divided accordingly.

The other concern is the accelerated timeline. In February 2014, MDOT announced phases in Madison Heights scheduled for 2020, 2022 and 2024. Earlier this summer, they announced that the first phase would be bumped up to 2018, while the other two phases would be delayed by two years.

This is a costly curveball for the city, which claims it did not have adequate notice to forecast for this in its budget, according to Myers. For example, the city recently spent $200,000 on I-75 service drive improvements that will now be reworked by MDOT. That work was done based on the previous project schedule. The city would have decided differently had they known that the MDOT project would start in 2018.

The project will cost the city of Madison Heights an estimated local share of $4.025 million for all three phases:

• $800,000 in 2018, reworking the Interstate 696/I-75 interchange to a point south of 12 Mile.

• $425,000 in 2024, reworking I-75 from north of 13 Mile to north of Rochester Road.

• $2.8 million in 2026, reworking I-75 from south of 12 Mile to north of 13 Mile.

All of this would be funded by Public Act 51 — road money from the state gas and weight tax, calculated on the city’s certified mileage or, in other words, the amount of road it has that needs to be maintained.

In effect, this would eliminate the city’s ability to provide major road reconstruction for more than three years, according to Myers. It would also impact the city’s ability to salt the roads during winter maintenance, and it would eat into funding for DPS staff and traffic lights in the city as well.

In addition to the direct costs, the I-75 project also results in a permanent tax revenue loss to the city in the form of around 25 property takings for the first phase in 2018. The state would claim these properties under eminent domain, compensating the property owners but not the city. The accelerated timeline means MDOT may be contacting affected property owners as soon as early 2016.

The city says it has had no opportunity for input regarding the changes in project phasing. In addition, the impact of the project on the city’s road network during construction with no compensation by MDOT, the recent I-75 service drive improvements made by the city, and the loss of future tax revenue from the full and partial property takings have not been addressed by MDOT, according to Myers.

All of these concerns are reflected in a recent resolution passed by City Council. The same resolution also supports Michigan Senate Bill 557, introduced by Sen. Marty Knollenberg, which seeks to eliminate Public Act 51 requirements for local share contributions on this and other MDOT Trunkline projects.

City Councilman Robert Corbett has been pushing for this resolution for a while, but city staff held off until more concrete numbers were available.

“The taxpayers of Madison Heights are going to underwrite this construction, which will benefit them, but also provide convenience for other cities that use I-75, yet those other cities are not expected to pay for the cost,” Corbett said.

He questioned whether this project makes sense in the here and now.

“Fifteen years after this project was first dreamt up, it’s an entirely different world in terms of where people are living and the amount of money communities have to spend on public improvements. We simply don’t have that kind of cash, and if we did, we’d have more pressing things to spend it on. Police, fire, DPS workers — all of them are in short supply at the moment,” Corbett said.

“And this delays the inevitable, the day of reckoning,” he said. “It continues our use of individual cars and delays us from addressing mass transit. At some point, the tri-county area has got to come to grips with the need for a reliable alternate transportation system, be it a hard rail system or an expanded bus system, preferably relying on electric or natural gas. All this (I-75 project) does is kick the can farther down the road.”

City Councilman Bob Gettings had his concerns as well, but was more optimistic.

“I think the expansion is a good idea. Back when I was in high school in the ’60s, they took a street and a half of Madison Heights, through eminent domain, taking out the houses there. You hated to see those people lose their homes, but in the end, it was progress (for the greater good). We have so much traffic now in the tri-county area, it drives people crazy. This could alleviate those problems.

“However, and I’m not knocking the state on this, but I’m not sure they (MDOT) gave us enough leeway, enough notice,” he continued. “They’re running their department the way they run it, but maybe they need to look at the whole picture and look at how they impact Madison Heights and how we budget.”

Sue Datta, senior project manager at MDOT, said a number of these concerns are unfounded. She said that while the first phase of the project has been bumped up to 2018, the city of Madison Heights still has the option to start making payments in 2020 as originally planned.

“We also gave them the option to sit down with us if they want to find alternative funding plans,” Datta said.

She also indicated that the design won’t be decided until 2018, and that the 25 property takings is merely a “worst-case scenario.” Like a sculptor taking a block of marble and carving it into a statue that uses only a fraction of the material, MDOT draws up a broad circle and creates the design within it, tightening and refining the design so that fewer properties are used.

“That’s how it generally goes in our environmental clearance,” Datta said. “It will likely only get better, not worse.”

Rob Morosi, spokesperson for MDOT, said it’s always necessary to look at the worst-case scenario with projects like this.

“For an agency like us that works on infrastructure, you always incorporate the worst-case scenario because it’s always permissible to scale down. If you don’t take into account the worst-case scenario and you need to do more, then you have to start the project all over again, spending more taxpayer dollars. And then the roads and bridges continue to get in worse shape.

“We’re looking at a few issues here,” he continued, speaking to the project’s necessity. “We have analyzed crash data on I-75 in Oakland County for numerous years, and most of the crashes are rear-end and sideswipes, which indicate a capacity issue. So obviously congestion is an issue, and the project is needed to rebuild the road so people have more room to operate in their vehicles and they’re safer. And any rebuilt road is safer than an old road that has to have maintenance year after year.” 

Myers said that the possibility of a payment plan had been discussed with MDOT, but the city was not provided with any specifics.

“From the city’s perspective, regardless of what year they say we can pay in, it doesn’t address the philosophical or policy issue we have that we shouldn’t be paying that amount at all,” Myers said.