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MDOT Director: Equity, Inclusion Need to Be Part of Transportation Planning

Detroit Free Press
Eric D. Lawrence
Feb. 16, 2022

The head of Michigan’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) says his office is focused on more than just moving traffic these days.

Equity and inclusion are key considerations, too.

To Paul Ajegba, MDOT director, the destruction of Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood decades ago represents the old way of thinking, when those concepts were not a part of the planning process and a thriving Black neighborhood was sacrificed for a quick route to the suburbs.

The I-375 proposal, which would replace that mile-long stretch of interstate with a more connected boulevard, aims to correct at least some of the physical legacy from an urban renewal effort that led to the destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.   It also represents a new way of thinking about transportation planning, one that connects communities rather than separating them in the pursuit of traffic efficiency.

“We want people to be able to walk in the community. We want people to be able to get out of their cars, park and walk around the restaurants and all that,” Ajegba said recently. “Slowly chipping away at making these kinds of changes is going to take time, but I think it starts with the paradigm shift that, you know, you’ve got to be inclusive when you’re talking about your transportation system.”

Ajegba and Jon Kramer, president of OHM Advisors, an engineering firm with its headquarters in Livonia, spoke to the Free Press about the shift in transportation planning toward equity and inclusion. These are concepts that have gained support in recent years. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has even discussed how racism is “physically built into some of our highways” and why it’s important to repair damage that lasted long after the highways were built.

Michigan Department of Transportation Director Paul Ajegba says his department isn't just focused on moving traffic more efficiently any more. Equity and inclusion are key concerns, too.

Historians note that the destruction of Black Bottom wasn’t simply a matter of not listening to the community but also a concerted effort to remove Black people from an area on the edge of Detroit’s central business district. It was a process that played out in similar fashion in cities across the country.

Ajegba described the generational implications of the I-375 construction and how it affected the thousands of people who were displaced.

“That’s wealth that those owners of those businesses were not able to transfer to the next generation and the next generation and the next generation, and that’s how you build wealth. So the new thinking is (to) be inclusive,” he said. “Before you make decisions like that let’s look at everything holistically. Make sure that you have all the stakeholders at the table having a conversation about how best to create an equitable infrastructure for the citizens.”

That’s not what happened in the past, Kramer said.

“If you go back to the 1950s and look at how our interstate highway system was developed, a lot of them plowed right through neighborhoods and a lot of them were disadvantaged neighborhoods without really too much thought about what the impact of that is and so with the new administration they’ve kind of recognized a lot of that and we’re looking at ways today, (to say), ‘Well, how can we fix that, how can we right the wrong,’ because although those mistakes were made, there’s no better time than now to correct them,” he said.

In addition to the I-375 project, which is going through a federal environmental review process, Ajegba pointed to the Woodward Avenue Loop project in Pontiac as a prime example of how the state is now working to fix problem road designs from the past.

The higher-speed loop encircling downtown Pontiac, which was built to serve traffic for General Motors, would be replaced by two-way streets and other improvements.

Ajegba said he recalled working in MDOT’s Pontiac office years ago. A national drugstore chain had considered building a store in the area but backed out because the one-way nature of the Loop meant traffic would continue on rather than turn around, if needed, to access the store.

“Now we’re rethinking that whole approach. Make it a two-way, put sidewalks there, put a bike lane and connect it to the neighborhood. People from the neighborhood can come out, walk around, ride their bikes, and enjoy (it) and also use that to attract businesses to that community. When you look at equity and inclusion in transportation, that’s what we’re talking about,” Ajegba said.

View the original article here.