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A road map to smart decision-making: Michigan’s US-23

In the early 1990s, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) strongly pushed for the construction of a four-lane freeway parallel to the existing two-lane US-23. The expansion would have rerouted US-23 through undeveloped country in the northeastern part of the state, causing the largest single wetlands loss in Michigan and severely compromising protected wildlife habitat, state and national forestland, coastal wetlands, and the Au Sable River Corridor. Friends of the Earth went so far as to list the US-23 expansion among the nation’s “Fifty Most Wasteful Roads in America.” 

Residents opposed the expansion, instead preferring to fix the existing highway by adding passing lanes and making other safety improvements. “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 US-23 Freeway Alternatives, a citizens’ group in Alpena. The original draft Environmental Impact Statement, made public in 1995 only considered only two choices: build the extension or do nothing.

Upon discovering MDOT’s lack of due diligence and failure to fully consider other project alternatives, the Federal Highway Administration stepped in and rejected the proposal, instead directing MDOT to upgrade the existing highway or study the creation of a less-damaging boulevard. The largest and most expensive project canceled in Michigan’s history, FHWA also recommended resident-supported alternatives such as the addition of passing lanes and turn lanes and traffic signal upgrades.

Kelly Thayer, transportation project coordinator at the Michigan Land Use Institute, said the intervention called it a huge success. “NEPA kept alive the public’s opportunity to give input,” said Thayer.

Thanks to the NEPA process, Michigan taxpayers saved over $1.5 billion and local communities were spared the devastating impacts of unneeded and unwanted expansion.

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The Partnership Project's NEPA campaign is a registered 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization.