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Should highway through Grand Rapids be torn down, buried, or rerouted? MDOT seeks input

John Eisenschenk
Creative Commons
U.S. 131's "S-curve" through the middle of downtown Grand Rapids.

Michigan’s Department of Transportation is asking the public for input on the future of two major freeways, Interstate-96 and U.S. Highway 131, near Grand Rapids.

There are some big ideas floating around.

A group of residents hopes MDOT will consider drastic changes to U.S. 131, where it runs through the heart of downtown Grand Rapids.

The highway was built in the late 1950s. Some portions of it have been reconstructed but at some point in the next 20 years it’ll need to be completely revamped.

But some people are saying, forget reconstruction, how about turning it into a boulevard or burying it underground instead?

Grand Rapids resident Mark Miller is one of those people.

“Yeah we’re dreamers, right? But back in 1954, people might have thought that (former President) Dwight D. Eisenhower was a dreamer in the sense that he had this vision of building this highway network through our entire country,” Miller said.

Miller and others imagine more walkable neighborhoods where the highway cuts through downtown. He thinks it would spur economic development and possibly entice more people to live downtown.

He says MDOT should study these options.

“Maybe those are options, maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re not economically feasible. Maybe they’re not technically feasible. But looking at it as more than just a car sewer that’s running through our downtown is something that we advocate for,” Miller said, “It’s not free to take it down and widen the lanes. It’s still going to cost millions of dollars to do that.”

MDOT’s regional transportation director, Dennis Kent, says the agency is aware of these ideas “that have suggested doing something sort of really radical to the freeway system” as opposed to what it currently is.

Kent says the agency will look at those options and give them “some level of discussion.” But he warns that a lack of funding could prevent serious consideration.

“I think we have to be careful not expecting too much out of this study. It’s really focused on the corridors that we have at hand and how best to manage those facilities more or less as they currently exist,” Kent said.

Kent says it would be difficult for a boulevard to handle the 100,000 vehicles that use U.S. 131 daily. He also suggests moving that traffic onto other freeways would cause capacity problems.

But Kent says that some of the goals, like more accessibility for bicyclists or pedestrians, could be worked into a reconstruction of U.S. 131.

Public input is welcome at meetings this week and next.

The first is set for Thursday at 6 p.m. at Rockford Construction Community Center. Find more details on MDOT’s website.

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