Why's That: Tree Removal And Tolls On I-94? | WMUK

Why's That: Tree Removal And Tolls On I-94?

Mar 12, 2020

Piles of chipped trees along I-94 in Van Buren County between Paw Paw and Mattawan
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Sheila Marie Everett lives in Paw Paw and commutes to Portage, and recently, she noticed that crews were clearing trees along I-94. “And chipping them and sort of leaving the wood there and the logs were stacking up, and I wondered how much tree removal was going on and why and where was the wood going,” she said.

We will answer those questions – but first, we’ll hear some intriguing ideas for the future of a busy, if not always beloved, interstate.

The tree removal goes beyond Mattawan. “It’s going all the way out to, like, Watervliet, Hartford, almost all the way to Benton Harbor, St. Joe,” said Southwest Michigan MDOT spokesman Nick Schirripa. Sheila Marie and I joined him at the regional MDOT office in Kalamazoo.

I ask Sheila Marie if she was hoping for a third lane when she saw the trees coming down.

“I will admit that I was like, ‘maybe they’re going to widen the road!’ It would be great idea if they did, but yeah, I knew that probably wasn’t the answer,” she said.

Widening is not the reason for the tree clearing, but congestion on I-94 is a passionate topic in Southwest Michigan – so let’s take a detour.

Schirripa notes that MDOT is getting ready to widen 94 in Kalamazoo from Lovers Lane to Sprinkle Road.

“That’s why the Sprinkle Road ramps and interchange is a little goofy. There’s that extra lane, we’re not really sure why it’s there in the ramp? That’s why it’s there,” he said.

And speaking of improvements, near Galesburg I-94 is going to get a breakdown lane. But a statewide expansion?  

“We would love to be able to blow I-94 up to six lanes from Port Huron all the way down to New Buffalo,” Schirripa says. “That would be amazing. I don’t think we’re there. Obviously we can’t afford it, that’s immeasurably expensive,” adding that MDOT’s budget is “the exact same size as it was in 1992.”

That doesn’t mean big change could never come to I-94. In fact, the legislature wants to know what I-94 would look like as a toll road. MDOT’s preparing to study that, though Schirripa says it wouldn’t be easy.

“Currently that would take act of Congress because it is a freeway, it is a federally funded freeway, we are not allowed to toll it. If do put tolls on the existing I-94, we would have to give the feds back every dime we ever spent on I-94 of federal money,” he says.

Alternatively, the state could build a new road and toll it. Or, it could build one tolled expressway lane on I-94. But Schirripa says that would be complicated too.

“Any existing I-94 infrastructure cannot be tolled. We can build an entirely new lane, so with an entirely new lane comes entirely new ramps, entirely new bridges, entirely new interchanges,” he says.

That would also be very expensive.

Expansion is the dream of many people traveling on congested I-94. But Schirripa says, as soon as you widen a road, more people show up to drive on it. He says on a three-lane I-94, traffic would almost certainly jump by 50 percent right away. Plus, as much as people speed on I-94 now, Schirripa says three lanes could make the speeders even bolder.

“Yes trucks get out of the way, yes, you have one lane that generally moves a little bit more free flow and you have fewer slowdowns. But, that’s a tradeoff. Are you willing to accept those increased safety risks just to have that one lane, maybe two lanes that move a little better?”

So, a third lane’s no panacea.

By now you may be wondering what happened to Sheila Marie Everett’s question about tree removal, so let’s get back to that. Schirripa says it’s a little about grooming, but mostly about safety.

“In this specific instance, we have to leave so much room off the edge of I-94. So if you’re driving on I-94 and your vehicle leaves the roadway, we have to give you ample time to correct that. We want you to be able to correct that or stop or do what you need to do before you hit a tree,” he said.

Everything in the right of way that’s bigger than a sapling periodically gets cut down, though MDOT plants trees further back as windbreak and a visual barrier.

Schirripa says the contractor owns the wood.

“Some will keep it, some will sell it,” or send it home with their workers or offer it to nearby residents.

Sheila Marie Everett says she was alarmed to see so much tree cutting, but she figured there was a reason.

“If you’re going 70 miles an hour you’re going to go a lot farther off the road,” she says, “whether you slip on ice or something happens, so, that makes a lot of sense.”