U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announces a $104.6 million dollar grant to the Michigan Department of Transportation on Thursday, September 15, 2022 at 951 E Lafayette St in Detroit. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

State and federal officials gathered Thursday near I-375 in Detroit to announce a $104.6 million grant to speed up removal of the one-mile highway and replace it with a street-level boulevard. 

The funding will allow the state to move up its timeline for the work by two years, to 2025.

Plans to remove the highway that contributed to the destruction of a predominantly Black residential neighborhood and business district, have been in the works since 2013. It will be replaced with a street-level, 6-lane boulevard with wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and will incorporate some environmental assets, such as green stormwater infrastructure. 

The highway was built in the 1960s, the latest in a string of “urban renewal” efforts which altogether destroyed Detroit’s thriving Black neighborhood, Black Bottom, and the commercial and entertainment district, Paradise Valley. In total, more than 100,000 residents were displaced and 300 businesses were forced to close or relocate, resulting in the likely loss of millions in intergenerational wealth.

“This is a reparative process,” U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told BridgeDetroit. “We have to recognize that some of the people, a generation of people that got displaced, not all of them are even here to see this good news. But when you look at both the opportunity for the neighborhood and the opportunities for business owners and workers, many of whom will come from communities of color, that directly today live with the results of those decisions from 1964, that has material reparative value,” he said, adding that “benefiting the community is just good infrastructure policy.” 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II, Mayor Mike Duggan and Michigan Department of Transportation Director Paul Ajegba joined Buttigieg on a I-375 service drive on E. Lafayette to make the announcement Thursday morning. 

“I’ve been advocating for six years to fill in this ditch and knit the city back together,” Duggan said. 

The $104.6 million grant is from the federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program, which will grant out $8 billion over the next five years. In this round, $1.5 billion was awarded for 26 projects across the country, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation press release. 

“I can’t speak to what all the sizes of the other grants are, but this is probably one of the bigger ones,” Whitmer said during the press conference. “It gives us the chance to do something that we’ve all wanted to do, had on our list of things that are symbolic of understanding a painful history and building a future that is equitable.”

The total cost to remove I-375 is approximately $300 million, Ajegba said Thursday. The boulevard will begin south of the I-75 interchange and continue to Atwater Street. The final design of the new boulevard is still being determined. Some have been critical of the 6-lane boulevard design, saying that it replicates the impact of a highway, both in terms of safety and accessibility for walkers and bikers, and in terms of separating the neighborhoods on both sides. 

But Ajegba told BridgeDetroit, “it’s not quite the same” because the freeway is traveled at speeds up to 70-80 miles an hour, whereas the boulevard will be designed for 35 miles per hour. 

“This is going to spur a lot of development in the corridor,” Ajegba added, including affordable housing outlined in state planning documents. 

The state is forming a community advisory committee to give input on the physical design of the boulevard and how the boulevard will benefit the community, including the original community affected by the highway’s construction. Approximately 31 acres is expected to be vacated once the highway is filled in. MDOT has said it will use revenue from the acreage to fund community priorities. 

The state and city are narrowing down a list of committee members now, Jonathan Loree, senior project manager for MDOT told BridgeDetroit. The first meeting is expected in October. 

“This project got community involvement from the beginning.” Ajegba said. “To even get to the approval of the environmental document, we met with the community so many times because we want them to be part of the process, to be accepting of the final product. So we are going to continue to engage them.”

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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