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Government Money for Highway Sound Walls Pushes Suburbs To Brink

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Tuesday, January 12, 2010

INTRO: The Michigan Department of Transportation is taking federal stimulus dollars to widen M59. The expressway will have more lanes between Rochester Hills and Shelby Township. That’s part of both Oakland and Macomb County, from Crooks to Ryan Roads. The project will cost $57 million. Some residents near the highway are upset about traffic noise getting worse. But as Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports, traffic and noise in the suburbs are unavoidable.

In 1984, Avon Township became the City of Rochester Hills. The hills are real and the woods are beautiful. Yet what happens when everyone wants to live there but drives in and out, several times a day, by car for work, school or shopping? Olaf Nitsche lives in the Country Club Village subdivision. He talks about his neighbors who’ve been there 20 years.

“They just constantly see the increase of noise. It was acceptable when they moved in. They liked it because there’s woods. There’s animals. It was a nice place to live. By now it was a front row seating to a highway.”

The highway is M59. The Michigan Department of Transportation, MDOT, is widening a 5 mile section. MDOT officials held a public information meeting at Rochester Hills City Hall. They wanted to explain why most of the subdivisions will not receive sound walls along with the new extra lane of expressway. Olaf Nitsche is more upset with the real estate developers than with MDOT.

“This subdivision was started to be planned after the highway expansion was planned. Shame on everyone who was involved planning that subdivision. How can you in our times today, knowing the technology, the physics of noise, how can you plan residencies so close to a six lane highway without protection?”

Nitsche grew up in Germany where laws prevent farmland from being turned into suburbs. But when he bought his house in 2005, he knew he wouldn’t be moving into an historic, walkable community. Still he feels tricked.

“It’s convenient for me to get to work. I accepted a four lane highway. I accepted a certain noise level. I accepted that there’s trees between me and the highway. I’m losing my trees. I’m getting more highway and I’m getting more noise. I wasn’t aware of that when I moved in.”

MDOT’s job is to increase the number of vehicles moving from points A to B. In this case, it’s 80,000 cars a day. This project was planned ten years ago and now federal stimulus money is making it possible. Up to $38,000 will be spent per house on the cement sound wall. Why so much? Walls like this cost $250 per linear foot. Then there’s the square footage for all the work on the ground and underground. Tom Zerburg came from MDOT headquarters in Lansing.

“MDOT certainly isn’t gonna tell people how to use their private property and how to develop their land. However, when residential areas are developed along our freeways there are limited options for the types of programs we have that can abate the noise.”

“Naturally when you expand something you create more havoc of drivers. More drivers. More people you gotta look out for.”

That’s Jeff Lauth. He lives in the Wildflower subdivision off Rochester Road. He’s looking at topographic photos MDOT employees have displayed in a conference room. He points to a home that will get a new sound wall on one side of the highway and another home on the other side that won’t get a sound wall because it’s not clustered near a lot of other homes. Jeff Lath is talking to Tom Half from MDOT.

“What do you say to the person who wants to sell their house. I think you would agree that from a sales standpoint we’ve taken a pretty big hit in Michigan. Everybody. And now this is kind of like why would I live here with less noise?

(Tom) I’m not a real estate person. So I can’t tell you the value of someone’s home. One way or another.
(Jeff) Which side would you rather live on Tom?
(Tom) I wouldn’t even live near the freeway. That’s another thing.
(Jeff) So you think we just made a poor choice where we live?
(Tom) It’s a complex thing. It’s not just if you’re near a roadway.
(Jeff) But here it is Tom. We didn’t know this expansion was gonna go in like this.”

Jeff Lauth’s neighbor Angelo Matera also came for the public information meeting. He’s says he volunteers as a community advocate. Matera knows that transportation dictates real estate development.

“I used to live in Portland, Oregon. Not only are the light rail systems very good, the bus systems are very good.”

Portland Oregon is where thousands of Michiganders have moved in the last few years. Especially recent college graduates who take their tax dollars, entrepreneurship and future wealth with them.

All of the jobs, all of the shopping, all of the social events, all the cultural events, all the restaurants are downtown in the city. People want to live in the city which is a bit of the opposite here. People want to live in the suburbs here. They might go to work in the city but….”

Why is Michigan spending money on transportation that hurts the economy instead of helps? What would Angelo Matera do if he could make Michigan more like Oregon?

“Oh I don’t know if I’d tackle that. It’s just what people are used to. This is a car area right. And people just love cars here.”

In November the University of Michigan Real Estate program hosted Gail Achterman from Portland. She’s a U-M Law grad who’s on the Oregon Transportation Commission.

“The tendency for a lot of real estate developers is to say we want to do what we want to do with our land and it’s your problem if we collapse the function of the transportation system.”

But Achterman also chides local government and ordinary people. She says it’s their problem if they have blind loyalty to the auto industry. She says no bikes, no trains, no way to walk, no economy.

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