3 Great Lakes Cities Travel the Same Road

Across the region, urban residents faced with major highway reconstruction projects are calling for engineering designs that embrace access for pedestrians and bikers, pay more attention to mass transit, and strive to enhance urban character.

And, across the region, transportation officials show signs of resisting ideas that work toward improving access for pedestrians and bikers, integrating mass transit options, and enhancing urban character.

What's at stake is the sustainability of Great Lakes cities and their ability to boost economic competitiveness, safeguard ecological assets like clean air, and promote social equity for a diverse citizenship with a variety of needs.

The latest example comes from Cleveland, where city leaders and residents have a plan to transform the West Shoreway from a high-speed highway into a 35 mph tree-lined street that reconnects C-town with the Lake Erie waterfront, one of its more important assets in the race to attract top talent and compete in the 21st century. But state transportation officials recently threw the whole project into limbo claiming 1) it costs too much and 2) interferes with the flow of auto traffic.

Cut to Grand Rapids, MI, where the state department of transportation is, bridge by bridge, lane by lane, and year by year, steadily executing a complete reconstruction of the I196 expressway which divides a revitalizing neighborhood from a growing biotech business hub in the heart of downtown.

Residents advocate the project must comply with the city's new master plan, and return basic urban assets like human-scale lighting, wide sidewalks, and bike lanes on over- and underpasses. But, at a public meeting Thursday January 24, state officials repeatedly lamented limited funding to design and construct a superior roadway.

And, around Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, residents and city leaders there continue to argue for a public transit commuter rail line as part of a $1.9 billion rebuild of I94. But guess what? State officials say that there's no money to do it.

Money is not the issue. The Cleveland project is estimated at $65 million. The Grand Rapids project was pegged at $375 million in 2005. The cost will most certainly escalate as the construction timeline pushes past 2012. The Milwaukee project is slated to cost $1.9 billion.

So money is available. The issue is the outdated pattern that guides the spending. Wider highways have priority over more diversified investment in a variety of transportation options. Pedestrians and bikers take a back seat to the automobile. Chain link fencing and 30-foot concrete walls take precedence over urban views and vibrancy.

From Ohio to Michigan to Wisconsin, these three road battles confirm state government is following a profoundly misguided 20th century investment strategy that, in the long run, hampers the region's ability to rebuild its cities and transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age. And we're all paying for it.