The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is considering possible improvements to I-94, south of Ann Arbor. The timing is lucky: they were still in the study phase when the impact of COVID-19 emerged and there’s time to hit the pause button. For fiscal and environmental reasons, and to meet its stated goals, the state should indefinitely halt any investments in this stretch of highway.
This project would add capacity to the stretch between Ann Arbor-Saline Road and US-23 pictured here:
MDOT’s objectives for this stretch include accommodating an increased volume of traffic. They seek to “reduce recurring peak period congestion along the corridor and improve travel time reliability” as well as “provide reasonable capacity to address existing and 20-year forecasted 2045 traffic demand along the corridor.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the case for spending millions to improve traffic flow on this stretch. We can no longer afford this project, but luckily, we also no longer need it.
We can’t afford it…
As a result of COVID-19, Michigan is facing a budget deficit in the billions. State Budget Director Chris Kolb said: “There’s no playbook that’s on the shelf to truly address a loss of revenue of this size this quickly. This is potentially as bad, if not worse than, the Great Recession.” MDOT will face revenue shortages directly. It received over $2 billion in fuel tax revenue last year, and with fewer people driving, that revenue source will shrink.
MDOT also receives funding via transfers from the state’s general fund to MDOT for road repair. Forgoing non-essential projects like this one would allow the state to curtail its transfers to MDOT, freeing up general fund dollars that are desperately needed elsewhere (say, benefits for those who have lost jobs, or protective equipment for teachers).
And what if most of the money for the project would come from federal agencies? We’d still be foolish to pour our own money into chasing federal dollars. Suppose MDOT would only be paying 20% of the project’s cost; that’s still millions of Michigan dollars that are needed elsewhere. Plus, even if it doesn’t cost us Michiganders directly to squander federal dollars on such a project, it hurts the country at a time when federal spending also needs to be rethought.
…and we no longer need it.
Due to COVID-19, Michigan’s traffic volumes are at an all-time low. Many Michigan employers have their employees working from home for the foreseeable future. Even when it becomes safe to return to the office, companies may choose to keep their workers at home. Large companies like Nationwide Insurance have announced plans to close officers and switch to remote-first and big automakers are considering doing the same.
That means less peak period congestion, as fewer workers commute on I-94. It’s unclear whether vehicle volume will ever return to early 2020 levels, much less increase by 2045 as MDOT was projecting a year ago. With fewer cars on the road, now and in the future, that stretch of I-94 will naturally become safer and less congested.
MDOT is aware of this possibility. Communications Director Jeff Cranson said on June 26th, “some forecasts suggest people’s commutes could be forever altered as they found success working remotely.”
No one can be sure what traffic volume will look like in a year or ten. But since it’s quite possible that traffic on this stretch might never return to previous rush hour peaks, a highway expansion can’t be justified until more is known.
UPDATE: accounting firm KPMG has released a detailed report on how COVID-19 will affect the auto industry. They predict that the growth in vehicle miles has finally come to an end and that there will be a permanent reduction in car traffic:
After almost 60 years of largely uninterrupted growth, vehicle miles driven (VMT) in the U.S. will drop in 2020, and we estimate that enduring changes in driving habits could lead to a 9 to 10 percent drop in VMT.
What is certain about the future: vehicle traffic must decrease
Short-term trends driven by the pandemic are hard to predict. Much clearer is that the world can’t afford to maintain, much less increase, our current traffic volume. The UN IPCC’s landmark 2018 report said it plainly: “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Expanding a highway to accommodate an expected increase in traffic for decades to come is the opposite of forward thinking.
The simple-seeming prospect of replacing all of our current vehicles with electric ones, which would be the argument for increasing highway volume while acknowledging the climate crisis, would require a staggering amount of extraction of lithium and other rare minerals. Instead, we must think more creatively, planning for a future with shared fleets of self-driving cars, less commuting, and more remote work.
We have enough carbon budget left for one more big round of infrastructure development. That design must deliver us to a future where we can thrive within the boundaries that the planet will support. More people in Southeast Michigan will be freed from a rush-hour commute to the office, spending more time with their families and enjoying leisure activities. That such a future is necessary was clear even before COVID-19, though not everyone was looking at the horizon to see it.
The pandemic has forced our hand and exposed the broken aspects of the status quo. Michigan has less money with which to meet more desperate needs. The economic crisis, plus the likelihood of rush hour never returning to what it was, make this an easy decision: it’s time to table this project.