This week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast puts a spotlight on the project transforming I-375, a stub freeway built six decades ago, piercing the City of Detroit and displacing whole neighborhoods in the era of urban renewal.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Paul C. Ajegba, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and interested parties this week at a roundtable discussion after MDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). This follows thorough documentation and review of public comments, which is the final National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decision document. The document describes why the I-375 improvement project will not have any significant environmental impacts expected to occur upon implementation of the selected alternative design.
Tony Migaldi of the infrastructure design firm HNTB is managing the project in consultation with MDOT planners and engineers. He joins the podcast to talk about the significance of this week’s milestone, the work that brought the project to this point, and what lies ahead.
Migaldi talks about the amount of listening that went into the process and the robust engagement with the owners of businesses along the corridor and the residential neighbors. He also discusses excess property that will be freed up with a conversion of a sunken freeway to an at-grade urban boulevard, which will include options for cyclists and pedestrians and connections that were lost to the freeway.
This animation offers an idea of what to expect with the finished product.
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who has some family history in the neighborhoods lost to the freeway, spoke on the podcast previously about what the project could mean to the city and acknowledging mistakes of the past. When work to build I-375 began in 1959, the thriving black neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were demolished to make way for the freeway. Built through a thriving Hastings Street, the new I-375 opened in 1964 and created a barrier between the central business district in Detroit and the neighborhoods to the east, resulting in decades of underinvestment and a lack of opportunity for the predominantly Black communities on the other side of the freeway.
Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast
Gov. Whitmer joins MDOT community partners to celebrate hurdle cleared for I-375
Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I’m Jeff Cranson.
Cranson: Welcome again to this week's Talking Transportation podcast. We're recording this on March 17, 2022, St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m pleased to say that we marked a major milestone in the project to transform the I-375 corridor in Detroit. Yesterday, Governor Whitmer joined Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and MDOT director Paul Ajegba and a number of community members who have a vested interest in what happens with this corridor for a roundtable discussion. And first, we're going to hear from the governor and what she had to say at that round table, and then I’ll be back with Tony Migaldi, who is an HNTB project manager working with MDOT on this project.
Gretchen Whitmer [recording]: This is a sad history, right, where a community was bisected by a freeway and had devastating impacts. We've got an opportunity. Thankfully, we've got leadership in Washington D.C., and mayor here in the city of Detroit, and us, and state government. We're eager to work together, but we're not going to dictate what this looks like. The community is a critical part of making sure that we do it, we do it right, that it's about equity, and it's about honoring the history of the neighborhoods. One of the things that director Ajegba mentioned in our round table was that MDOT wants to put out an RFP and hire a historian to help inform the work that will be presented to the community and getting the full community feedback. But it's got to be informed by the community, and it's got to pay honor to black bottom and to the history of the neighborhood and meet the needs of people that live here. And that's why talking with the community, making sure it's informed by the community needs, and that it honors that history is really important.
Cranson: Okay, once again as promised, I’m here with Tony Migaldi who is the project manager for HNTB, the consultant working with MDOT planners and engineers on the transformation of the I-375 corridor. Really history in the making, and something that we've talked about before in the podcast, and I can't overstate how cool I think this is that we're doing it. We can't change history, we can't change what happened in the past, but we can certainly try to make things better going forward. So, Tony, thank you for taking time to be here.
Tony Migaldi: Thank you, Jeff. I appreciate the opportunity and St. Patrick’s Day, go green.
Cranson: Happy St. Patrick’s Day. So, tell me a little bit about yourself first, you know, your background, how you got into this kind of project planning, and working for a major engineering consultant, and how you got into the 375 project.
Migaldi: For sure Jeff, I appreciate it, again. So, a little bit of history, a little experience going down memory lane; I’ve been with HNTB now for 14 years in a variety of roles. Previously, I had an opportunity working for Michigan Department of Transportation for about 12 years. I really started my career in road design in central office, and so, working on projects around the state, working with the public, and trying to determine the best solutions was something that, early on in my career, I wanted to get experience around. I took that experience, was at the Jackson TSC for four years, really boots on the ground, working with the department in the public down in Jackson. And then in 2008, I came over to HNTB, and ever since then been working on projects such as the M-1 rail Woodward reconstruction project. That took off in 2011, was fully constructed in 2017, and that really was a segue for me and in my career working with the public in downtown Detroit, working with city officials, city Detroit officials, and starting to build the relationships and really around complex projects in an urban environment where, in that project, was very much started in an environmental phase similarly to I-375 and right into construction. So, there's a lot of parallels between the two. So that was an opportunity here early on for me to get my feet wet. So, in 2017, we were successful in the pursuit of an owner's rep contract with the Department of Transportation, with MDOT, and ever since over the last five years been very focused around completing the finding of no significant impact—
Cranson: Tony, first let me back you up just a second; explain to the non-transportation types what does it mean to have an owner's rep?
Migaldi: Oh, yes. So, this project, what an owner's rep contract really entails is what I like to call soup to nuts. Or…maybe not cradle to grave, but soup to nuts let's say. It's an opportunity with the owner here, in this case MDOT, to provide resources from, in this case planning resources, environmental resources. It provides a backstop, and it builds in capacity for the department to deliver on really major corridors such as I-375. We have an opportunity now. It does help with shortening the procurement time because we can go right into our next task order which is right into design efforts. And then depending on procurement, right, there's also opportunities to help the department in construction as well down the road. But it really does provide the department to tap into resources outside the agency and across the country to help deliver a program such as the I-375 corridor.
Cranson: So, you talked about the finding of no significant impact, which is, you know, that's a milestone. It's something that's required by the federal highway administration on these kinds of projects, and it lets us move forward. But getting to that point—you worked with MDOT officials, obviously, in the community; a whole bunch of people who have an interest in this will have their lives affected by the corridor. Talk about that process, and the listening that needs to go on, and how you make sure that everybody is heard.
Migaldi: Yes so, we worked—first of all just a shout out and a big thank you to John Loree, the MDOT project manager, Margaret Barondes, the environmental team in Lansing, and Rob Morosi and Monica Mosma from communications. We built a strategy, really it was a multi pointed effort. First, right off the get-go, we built what was called a local advisory committee and a government advisory committee. And the intent of those two committees, we wanted a representation of individuals: business owners, residents, folks along the corridor, just outside the corridor, to really help the team, the MDOT/HNTB team, to develop an alternative. What I, you know, take it to your point, to your question about listening, taken of all the different aspects of what we heard, and help us move the process along; to really thread that needle amongst delivering this with the intent of answering the questions based on what was determined in the purpose of need. So the LAC/GAC was a conduit to get to a lot of people. We also enacted what we would call living room conversations, one-on-one conversations, smaller group conversations to get to more individuals, and to have more of those intimate conversations around. We really wanted to provide an overview of all the alternatives talk through those in detail, and then also do more listening. And then—
Migaldi: Go ahead.
Cranson: Oh I was just going to say, what I’m wondering, what did you learn along the way, what really surprised you as you heard from the community and as you delved into this and learned more about the history of the corridor and, you know, the neighborhoods that were displaced by building I-375?
Migaldi: Sure, what we heard the most was we wanted to ensure that, first of all, we wanted to acknowledge, well, what partake back in, you know, when the I-375 was originally constructed in 1959, completed in 1964. We want to understand, okay, acknowledge what was done, and how we can work together as a community to move the needle, to make it a little bit better for the next generation. And it, one of the major topics right off the bat around active transportation, was really connecting the neighborhood back together. So doing what we can do to really minimize the payment area, trying to get as much of the payment reduced. Looking at, so we, you know, we had took a very elaborate approach around traffic. We also enacted bicycle lanes, a cycle track, non-motorized features throughout the corridor to help facilitate everyday folks. We heard that a lot from Lafayette Park; they wanted to be able to get across the boulevard in a very safe manner. So, we took a lot of effort and a lot of time to analyze those intersections. We will continue to do so. The other big part of the project, and what we heard a lot of, is there is an opportunity; there's about 30 some acres, 31-32 acres that is a direct result of the selected alternative now that will be able to be used for some other use. And so, how that is used is to be determined. We're going to be working with the community to get back out with the community to listen to them. What’s the vision, what's the land use vision for them, ultimately. What does right look like for them to be a part of the conversation.
Cranson: Yeah, Mayor Duggan talked a little bit about that yesterday and what his thoughts are. Let's listen to what he had to say.
Mike Duggan [recording]: What the governor and I are already talking about is some type of authority that's a combined state and city authority that would develop this property. Now, the state has to have responsibility. The federal government holds them accountable as they turn the freeway right of way back, but I think we can replicate that process. And we can have something that honors the history; it won't look like Hastings Street did, but it'll look like an area that everybody can be proud of. And we want to make sure Detroiters are included in the ownership and the development, and I think we've proven that we can do that. And I think the equity of who participates is just as important as what it looks like. We got to do both those things together.
Cranson: Stay with us, we'll have more on the other side of this important message.
Narrator: Hey, did you see that sign on the side of the road? What about those workers? Are you even paying attention to how you're driving? Work zone awareness takes all of us.
Cranson: So yeah, Tony, when you talk about that property, I think one of the things that probably surprised me and maybe others that about this is how much land goes into building a freeway. I mean, you're still going to have a decent amount of traffic capacity on the boulevard that replaces this, yet, you're going to have that much excess property. I guess that says something about how much property it takes to build a freeway. What, why is that?
Migaldi: Yeah, the depressed freeway that was constructed originally, it was, when you looked at, I think Mayor Duggan mentioned this yesterday, the depressed freeway and those slopes coming down to the freeway, that takes a lot of right of way. The service drives, that takes, you know, that took a lot of right of way. And the median, it all adds up. And while we were in our processes of evaluating the different alternatives, we were able to reduce the footprint by looking at leveraging, and again, working with the city of Detroit hand in hand, looking at the interconnections with the city grid and leveraging a city grid where we were able to reduce the overall lanes. Originally, this was going to be an eight-lane boulevard: four lanes northbound four lanes southbound. And we were able to reduce that down to six lanes: three northbound, three south bound.
Cranson: I guess that demonstrates one of the biggest benefits of this in terms of the community, not only the connectivity because you're going to have an at-grade road now, and present those opportunities for multimodal users, but also, how that property is developed in cooperation between the state and the city. And, you know, the opportunities that that presents. I mean, this is, you know, there's been some other freeway conversions in the country, but it's still a relatively, I guess, new concept, and kind of unprecedented, certainly unprecedented from Michigan. How do you feel about that, that you're kind of, on one hand you don't really have a great template to go by, and you're kind of making it up as you go along, but on the other hand, you're doing something truly pioneering. I’m guessing that that feels pretty cool.
Migaldi: It is, we do not take this lightly at all. We take this, here at HNTB, we take this challenge that we have an opportunity, yes, to be trailblazers. We always look for those opportunities where we can really distinct ourselves in the community, and this is no different. We have individuals here like Diana Mendes, Regina Buff, helping us with the equity, the diversity equity, inclusion conversation. We spent almost 12 months here really working with FHWA and MDOT to go back, take a look at acknowledging what partaked. But also developing, and we're looking to implement a community enhancement plan along with the land use framework plan that will really be instrumental for the conversations that will be forthcoming later this year/next year. In the redevelopment of well, you know, as of today, I-375 but something different tomorrow. It'll not be a I-375 no longer, it will be M-375, or—
Cranson: Or maybe, ultimately gets turned over to the city and becomes a city street.
Migaldi: Sure, you know, all those questions are…that's the journey that we're going to be really going down the road and trying to determine—
Cranson: Maybe it becomes Aretha Franklin Boulevard.
Migaldi: Absolutely. There, you know, Hastings, everything that's going to be a part of the conversation with the community, we're going to have the opportunity to get the community involvement around the naming of the boulevard. And I’ll say this, the one major challenge to this corridor because it is an interstate and, you know, moving a lot of cars—this is not, there are some other examples, I know there's one in New York folks point to, and the difference in traffic is six-sevenfold. And so we needed to not only come up with a solution that will move traffic, but also connect the neighborhoods. And that's what, over the last several years, trying to work through getting the non-motorized features, getting the traffic, and reconnecting the neighborhoods, and the place making that was all blended in this approach and in the selected alternative. And now the work is really going to hit the ground running when we go back out to the community to really look at, okay, what can we really do to continue to enhance this this corridor.
Cranson: These really aren't things they taught you in civil engineering school.
Migaldi: You know, it's funny you mentioned that. We were, Sarah Benkowski and I, were able to—we've done this now for three years we actually, were invited by Professor Gates at Michigan State University to present I-375 to his class, and his highway design class. And actually that was one of the questions, right, is we talked about active transportation; how does that interact with the motoring public? That's something that they don't typically see a lot of. We talked about, you know, we talked about all the elements on above the ground but look at all the elements below the ground; if that's utilities, drainage, so those are the type of things that, yes. And then also being able to communicate in a setting, in a public meeting, working with constituents, neighbors, the community leaders. That's something that typically a civil engineer doesn't typically have a part of their college engineering curriculum.
Cranson: So, talk a little bit about that class experience. What were their curiosities, what kind of questions did they ask about the project, and were any of them familiar with it, or was it all pretty new to them?
Migaldi: For the majority it was fairly new. There was a couple of folks, a couple that students, they have seen and heard about I-375. They really wanted to understand a little bit more about actually the urban planning points of the project. We went over the traffic, we went over the nuts and bolts: the traffic and some of the geometrics. But those softer sides of the project, and how we were able to get move the needle forward. And one of the elements, and one of the things that we did and what we showcased, and I think it does provide great value, is we developed an animation. So, taking what we have done to date on a piece of paper, really bring it to life. And the animation, the 3D modeling that we've done, and really showcasing what the before and after of what's out there today, and what it will be in the future. They were, you know, that's something that they have not seen before, so they were very excited to see that game and experience per se.
Cranson: That's very cool. Do you think they all left the class thinking that their jobs are going to be taking out freeways rather than building them?
Migaldi: Well, it's, you know, we're seeing this across the country. It's getting momentum across the country. Working on other projects here locally, looking at doing the same very thing, and again, this is… when we started this back in 17, and looking at earlier on than that, we knew that this was going to transform the industry. This is going to be once in a generation opportunity for all parties, and just the excitement around it is…we're really on a cusp and looking to be really trailblazers to move this forward.
Cranson: Well thank you, Tony. I’m gonna play another sound bite from yesterday's round table event when the director spoke to finish this out because he had some nice remarks that I think summed everything up. But thank you very much for taking time to talk about this, and good luck going forward on the project.
Migaldi: Thank you, Jeff, I appreciate that.
Paul Ajegba [recording]: As the governor said, I think it's a great opportunity to right some of the wrong of the past and create a boulevard that everybody will be proud of. When it's done, we think it's obviously gonna invigorate that corridor, create economic opportunity, and also connect the neighborhood, and that is what we are trying to achieve with this.
Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.