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E-M:/ U.S. 23 canceled, $1.5 billion and countryside saved

------------------------------------------------------------------------- Enviro-Mich message from Kelly Thayer -------------------------------------------------------------------------
March 29

Federal Govt. Rejects New, $1.5 Billion U.S. 23
FHWA Supports Public, Tells MDOT to Consider Upgrading Existing Highway

Institute press release on Internet (Also pasted below):

Today's Detroit Free Press editorial on US 23:

Federal Govt. Rejects New, $1.5 Billion U.S. 23
FHWA Supports Public, Tells MDOT to Consider Upgrading Existing Highway
March 24, 2000

Kelly Thayer
Michigan Land Use Institute
231-882-4723 ext. 13

Paul Bruce
People for U.S. 23
Freeway Alternatives

BENZONIA, MICHIGAN - The Federal Highway Administration on Thursday rejected the Michigan Department of Transportation's plan to spend $1.5 billion to build a new freeway along the Lake Huron coast between Alpena and Standish. The federal government's action ends a decade-long effort by Gov. John Engler to replace scenic, two-lane U.S. 23 with a 100-mile, four-lane freeway through undeveloped countryside. Citizens for years maintained that the proposal would damage the environment, spur sprawl, and squander taxpayer money.

"This is an historic moment. This is the largest, most costly freeway project ever canceled in Michigan," said Kelly Thayer, transportation project coordinator at the Michigan Land Use Institute. "The public's determination finally has resulted in federal action to stop this damaging and unneeded proposal."

In recent years, the Institute brought national attention to the proposed U.S. 23 freeway.
The Institute and the Taxpayers for Common Sense published a May 1997 report, Green Scissors Michigan, citing the U.S. 23 project as wasteful of taxpayer money and harmful to the environment. In April 1999, Taxpayers for Common Sense and Friends of the Earth listed the U.S. 23 project in its Road to Ruin report on the nation's 50 worst freeway proposals; U.S. 23 was ranked 7th.

With its action, the federal government directed the state Department of Transportation to upgrade the existing U.S. 23 two-lane highway or study building a less-damaging boulevard. FHWA said improvements to U.S. 23 could include passing lanes, traffic signal upgrades, and turn lanes. The federal government's decision comes in response to the state's final environmental impact study on U.S. 23, issued in early 1999.

MDOT pushed for a decade to build a limited-access freeway parallel to the existing two-lane U.S. 23. The $1.5 billion project was envisioned to run north from Standish, near the Saginaw Bay, to Alpena. MDOT has proposed to construct the freeway in three phases. FWHA on Thursday ruled on the first phase, between Standish and East Tawas.

The volume of traffic on U.S. 23 does not justify building a freeway, according to the state's own studies. From the start, Gov. Engler proposed using taxpayer money for the freeway as a means to stimulate the economy in Northeast Michigan. Numerous studies have shown that building roads to spur growth is a poor investment that wastes taxpayer money and triggers sprawl. Citizens have made this point for years, national experts have confirmed it, and now the view is starting to penetrate the state Department of Transportation.

MDOT in January scrapped a similar highway project, the $500 million plan to build a U.S. 131 freeway north of Manton in Northwest Michigan, after determining that the project would shift development from downstate rather than spur substantial new growth.

Residents throughout Northeast Michigan have called for years for MDOT to improve the existing, two-lane U.S. 23 highway by adding passing lanes where needed and making other safety enhancements.

"Right from the start, that was our whole focus: fix what we have and don't build a new, billion-dollar freeway," said Paul Bruce, founder of People for U.S. 23 Freeway Alternatives, a citizens group in Alpena. "A freeway is a waste of money and would ruin miles of undeveloped land." Mr. Bruce also criticized the boulevard concept for the same reasons.

Citizens pointed out that Northeast Michigan's economy is based on recreation and tourism tied to undeveloped land, which would be harmed by a new freeway. The Michigan United Conservation Clubs in 1995 passed a statewide resolution supporting the improvement of the existing U.S. 23 highway. Also in the mid-1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the first phase of the proposed U.S. 23 freeway would result in the "single largest wetlands loss within Michigan."

The National Environmental Policy Act requires states to consider "prudent and feasible" alternatives when proposing a major road project. FHWA found that MDOT's plan did not adequately consider promising alternatives.

The U.S. 23 proposal was part of MDOT's $5 billion plan to construct new and wider highways in coming years to combat congestion. Several national studies show that states cannot build their way out of congestion. New highways bring more even more traffic, sprawl, and loss of open space. The state continues to promote a $1.3 billion widening of seven miles of I-94 in Wayne County, a $1 billion new interstate between Jackson and Toledo, and a $600 million bypass of Grand Haven and Holland.

The Michigan Land Use Institute is an independent, non-profit research, educational and service organization founded in 1995. The Institute's mission is to establish an approach to economic development that strengthens communities, enhances opportunity and protects Michigan's unmatched natural resources. The Institute runs the Michigan Transportation and Land Use Coalition, with 23-member groups working to improve public transit, fix roads first, promote bicycling and walking, and stop sprawl.

Mr. Kelly Thayer
Transportation Project Coordinator
Michigan Land Use Institute
P.O. Box 228
845 Michigan Ave.
Benzonia, MI 49616

Ph: 231-882-4723
Fax: 231-882-7350
E-mail: kelly@mlui.org
Internet: http://www.mlui.org

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