Federal grant funds one third of I-375 replacement project in Detroit
Detroit — The U.S. Department of Transportation is giving Michigan $104.6 million to accelerate removal of the I-375 freeway, which destroyed the prosperous Black communities of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in the 1960s.
The grant — the fourth largest of 26 announced by DOT on Thursday — still only funds around a third of the project’s total cost, estimated at $270 million for rebuilding and $30 million for engineering, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.
The proposed project would eliminate the sunken I-375 freeway that runs through Detroit and replace it with a lower-speed boulevard at city-street level. Dating back to 2013, planners have envisioned a tree-lined concourse populated by shops, restaurants, homes and pedestrians.
They have also pitched it as an important initiative to correct historic injustices by reconnecting once predominantly Black neighborhoods with the city’s downtown business districts.
“Sometimes ‘fixing the damn roads’ means facing the repercussions of how the roads were originally built,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Thursday, referencing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2018 campaign slogan. “We raise this issue not to wallow in it, but to challenge ourselves to do something about it.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the city and state are currently working on the project design, which is expected to be finalized within the next two years. Then the Detroit City Council will hold zoning hearings to determine what is developed along the new boulevard.
The federal Department of Transportation will then have to re-designate the surplus land as State of Michigan property. “The governor, at that point, will take the lead in how it gets developed,” Duggan said.
As that process begins, Michigan officials say they’re confident they’ll be able to secure the rest of the money needed.
“There are some grant opportunities coming down the line at the federal level. We’re going to be advocating for that as aggressively as we did for this one,” said Bobby Leddy, spokesperson for the governor. “It’s a federal, state and local commitment. We’re working with the Legislature and the (Detroit) City Council” to secure funding.
Asked whether it’s common for infrastructure projects to begin without being fully funded, Michigan Department of Transportation spokesperson Jeff Cranson said, “it happens.”
The project is in MDOT’s five-year plan, he added, which means the state is planning investments in the project. “We’ll find the money one way or another.”
The funding announced Thursday was part of $1.5 billion designated for more than two dozen projects around the country through the federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program.
The program awards grants through a competitive process, which received 250 applications requesting over $26.5 billion total in funding this cycle, Christopher Coes, assistant secretary of transportation for transportation policy, said Wednesday.
In addition to advancing equity goals, the I-375 project wousave taxpayer money because a street-level boulevard will cost less to maintain than the sunken freeway with 15 bridges going over it, Buttigieg said. He added that the current freeway design contributes to congestion and crashes.
Many expected the I-375 proposal would be a natural fit for the new Reconnecting Communities program, a smaller funding opportunity for projects to address old infrastructure that has disconnected populations from the rest of the city.
While built for the ease of suburban commuters, the construction of I-375 and Lafayette Park displaced more than 130,000 people in Black Bottom and hundreds of drugstores, barbershops, restaurants, churches, banks and other businesses in the area. The freeway opened in 1964.
There are “a lot of different steps that we’ve got to take together going forward,” Whitmer said. But the grant “gives us the chance to do something that we’ve all wanted to do… (it is) symbolic of understanding a painful history and building a future that is equitable, that creates opportunity.”