The Tug-of-War that is the US-23 Freeway
One of the more controversial highway improvement proposals in Michigan is the proposed US-23 freeway connecting Standish with the lakeshore communities of Tawas City, East Tawas and Oscoda in Iosco County.
The proposed freeway has served to polarize various segments of the population in the region: many believe the freeway is necessary and may even bring some economic relief to this struggling part of the state. Others, however, believe smaller fixes to the current route are sufficient and that any new freeway would unnecessarily damage the area's environment. Some opponents also claim the freeway would hurt businesses in the few towns along the current US-23 by drawing through traffic away from them, while the proponents are looking to remove the through traffic and leave those communities for local traffic and tourists. Boths sides are fiercely fighting to either push the freeway through or to stop it dead in its tracks.
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has long proposed building the approximately 50-mile freeway connecting Standish with Oscoda. Further extension to Alpena has also been discussed, but any concrete proposals north of Oscoda would wait until the freeway reached that community first. The Detroit Free Press has stated the entire Standish-Alpena freeway would cost about $1.5 billion to construct. It remains to be seen, however, if the Oscoda-Alpena extension—about half the cost of the entire project—would even ever be built.
The current US-23 corridor in northeast Michigan is overburdened with local, commercial and tourist traffic, with much of the current highway two lanes wide, with scattered four lane segments. The proposed freeway would run on a more inland alignment, almost directly from Standish to Oscoda, staying well away from the Lake Huron shore for much of the distance. More than half the proposed freeway would run adjacent to the established Lake States Railroad (former Detroit & Mackinac Railway) corridor. MDOT has also stated the current shoreline alignment of US-23 would be retained in the state trunkline system and heavily promoted as the "scenic shoreline alternative" to the freeway. It could likely be signed as either an extension of M-13 or M-61. The Lake Huron Circle Tour routing would also be retained on the current lakeshore alignment as well.
In early 1999, MDOT submitted a final environmental impact statement to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The statement concentrated on the first phase of the project from Standish to M-55 west of East Tawas. It is reported this first segment would cost $300 million to build. In mid-March 2000, James Steele, FHWA Division Administrator, gave a 'thumbs-down' to the EIS submitted by MDOT, "because it gave only two possible choices: building the freeway or not building it," according to an article in the The Detroit Free Press. The article continued, "Steele recommended considering alternatives such as building a less elaborate 'boulevard' or improving U.S. 23 and state highways in the region. Possibilities include adding passing lanes and traffic signals, minor road widening, and improving intersections, he said."
While MDOT has recently or is currently upgrading the US-23, M-65 and M-55 corridors with the fixes suggested by the FHWA's Steele, former MDOT Director Jim DeSana stood firm in his belief the region will need more than just minor fixes to substantially improve the transportation infrastructure. In The Detroit Free Press article, DeSana is quoted, "We're going to make improvements to the current system wherever we can, then ... see what impact it had on 23. We've got to prove to them [a freeway] is the only way to handle what we need. Otherwise, they'll just kick it back again."
While the author tends to believe the US-23 corridor in Northeast Michigan will need more than band-aid fixes to truly solve the region's present and future transportation needs, it seems a "stepped" approach may be required to do so. One suggestion would be to gradually phase-in a new highway to the area, starting with a two-lane thoroughfare bypassing Standish, continuing to Omer, then running northeasterly along the railroad corridor past Turner and Twining, meeting M-55 west of Tawas. While only two lanes and lacking overpasses and interchanges, this highway would be limited-access on ample right-of-way. Then, as time passes and/or traffic demands, two more lanes could be added creating a limited access "expressway" or "boulevard," with access limited to select crossroads at various intervals. The next step would be to build interchanges at the busiest intersections, then construct overpasses at the remaining crossroads, thus arriving at the four-lane, fully controlled-access facility currently being proposed by MDOT. In this way, the corridor can be gradually improved over time, and additional capacity can be added as needed—or not added if not warranted. The major downside to this suggestion would likely be higher costs in the end, as building the highway properly the first time would be much cheaper than continually upgrading it over years.
As much as the opponents claim the freeway proposal is once-and-for-all dead, MDOT claims otherwise. Former Director DeSana has stated the latest setback by the FHWA is just that: a setback. The most likely next steps—beyond making spotty improvements to the current highway alignment—would be to increase the scope of the study to include alternate choices and alignments, and re-submitting it to the FHWA.
- Proposed US-23 Freeway Map
- US-23 Route Listing
- Federal Govt. Rejects New, $1.5 Billion US-23 - from the Michigan Land Use Institute.
- US-23 Extension - from the Michigan Land Use Institute's "Green Scissors Report".
- Stop Sprawl: The Road to Better Transportation Projects - Michigan US-23: Avoiding Costly Expansion - an article from the Sierra Club on how the US-23 Expansion project was halted.