Southwest Detroiters want a truck route ordinance now; city officials tell them to wait on ‘another study’

Residents say the clock is ticking to make changes to zoning rules or pass a truck route ordinance.
Photo by Rosa Maria Zamarron

Following a community meeting about trucking in Southwest Detroit last month, Thomasenia Weston was pleased to see police cars stopping trucks outside her home on Livernois and issuing tickets for using the street after 7 p.m. But Weston told Planet Detroit she only saw a few vehicles get pulled over, and soon they were “back to doing what they do.”

In this case, that means using Livernois south of Vernor to get from facilities like the Detroit Intermodal Freight Terminal to I-75 rather than having to make a difficult left turn from Vernor onto northbound Livernois. Weston said that for those drivers who stay off her street at night, “wherever they go after 7:00 p.m. is the route they should use all the time.” But efforts to pass an ordinance that could establish fixed routes have been on hold while the city completes another truck study.

At the meeting hosted by the LIvernois2Clark Block Club on March 20, residents raised concerns about truck idling, dirt and dust from the vehicles, and a lack of community input on city decision-making. Neighborhood resident Amanda Holiday encouraged attendees to use the Improve Detroit app to report problems with trucks in the neighborhood.

Sam Krassenstein, chief of infrastructure for the city of Detroit, gave a short presentation to the block club and said the city was looking into ways to address the problems created by the Livernois-Vernor intersection and freight terminal traffic. But he told residents they won’t see bigger fixes until a citywide truck study is completed at the end of the year.

Even then, there’s no guarantee of action.

Residents say they can’t wait any longer for solutions to their neighborhood’s trucking problems. They say a truck route ordinance, changes to infrastructure and traffic patterns, and zoning reforms need to be prioritized to protect residents – and soon.

With the Gordie Howe Bridge expected to open in 2025 and bring an estimated 50% increase in truck traffic over the 10,000 heavy vehicles already crossing the Ambassador Bridge daily, the clock is ticking to make changes that could protect residents. A report commissioned by former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder recommended 1,000 acres worth of land in Detroit be used for logistics with the development of the bridge, including 200-250 acres in Delray. 

“The trucks need to be off the streets,” Simone Sagovac, project director for the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, said. “It’s very clear from a public health standpoint.”

Diesel exhaust contains particulate matter associated with heart and lung problems and pollutants like nitrogen oxides, which are significant drivers of pollution-related deaths. And a 2021 study from the University of Michigan found Southwest Detroiters were exposed to noise levels from trucks louder than 70 decibels (dB), above the 55-decibel threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect health in residential areas. Researchers say noise can contribute to sleep problems, stress, poor cognitive performance, and high blood pressure, leading to coronary artery disease and heart attacks.

Heavy vehicles have also caused safety issues, with a truck hitting two parked cars and running into a porch on Livernois just south of Vernor in 2021. Sagovac says heavy vibrations from vehicles could contribute to cracked foundations and crumbling porches. Residents also wonder if the heavy traffic on neighborhood streets is destroying the sewer infrastructure under roadways, adding to problems with basement flooding.

‘We need solutions’

Andrew Bashi, staff attorney at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, criticized the city’s failure to pass a truck route ordinance as Grand Rapids, Lansing, Plymouth and many other Michigan cities have done.

“It’s really frustrating for residents to be continuously told…we need another study,” he said. “No, actually, we need solutions because people are breathing this stuff in every day, and their kids have asthma.”

A 2021 study of truck routes in Southwest Detroit, prepared by the planning and engineering firm Giffels Webster for the city of Detroit, offered several recommendations that echoed requests from the Livernois2Clark Block Club. 

The firm suggested routing trucks north on Livernois from Vernor, closing the intermodal freight yard’s entrance at Dix and Waterman, and opening new entrances for the facility on John Kronk, Wyoming Avenue in Dearborn and Livernois near Federal Street.

Both Sagovac and Bashi said there were shortcomings with Giffels Webster’s report, including a lack of resident input due to the COVID pandemic. Bashi said these issues were addressed in a truck ordinance focused solely on Southwest Detroit he worked on with former Councilmember Raquel Castañeda López.  

But that ordinance was never introduced after the city’s Law Department said it had problems.  Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett told Planet Detroit in a statement, “BSEED (Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department) has maintained that the Giffels Webster study is important to making comprehensive improvements. The Law Department agrees.” However, he previously said that a truck route would have to be citywide to be appropriate.  

The council could move forward with an ordinance despite the law department’s objections. Bashi viewed the department’s move as interfering with Council’s law-making powers, saying the reasoning that an ordinance would need to be citywide was “absolute nonsense” and “just another way to justify inaction.”

The Detroit Department of Public Works could establish truck routes independently and change other traffic patterns. Yet, without an ordinance, these changes may not adequately reflect the concerns of neighborhoods like Southwest, Bashi noted.

“It isn’t going to be a comprehensive system that puts the health and safety of residents first for once,” Bashi said. He also expressed concern that a city-initiated solution would make it more vulnerable to political interests, noting Mayor Mike Duggan’s ongoing preferential treatment of the billionaire Moroun family, who own several trucking companies. The administration has continued to cut lucrative deals with the Morouns despite a long history of blight, illegal road closures and zoning violations.  

Thomas Rogers, communications and engagement manager for Councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero, whose district includes Southwest, told Planet Detroit that the council member hadn’t yet introduced an ordinance but plans to move forward with one.

“We are working through potential legal challenges and practical implications, alongside working with the community to ensure their concerns are centered. Further, since this will impact the whole city, DPW has hired a consultant to conduct studies, collect data, and make recommendations on streets that could be turned into truck routes. Therefore, this will be a lengthy process,” Rogers said in an email.

Infrastructure, zoning, and a future with more trucks

The episodic enforcement in front of Thomasenia Weston’s house raises another question: if the city establishes truck routes, how would they be enforced?

Sagovac said infrastructure could offer a partial solution. For example, the city could install”bump outs” on streets like Livernois, extending the curb to calm traffic and deter heavy vehicles. Traffic calming circles are another option. Not to be confused with roundabouts, these are raised, often-landscaped islands in the middle of intersections that slow down traffic and are primarily used in residential areas.

Krassenstein said the city was taking other measures to address the problem in Southwest Detroit, putting up 80 signs to tell truck drivers not to use residential streets at night and installing 15 traffic cameras at intersections. He also said the city was “looking very seriously at legal options for what do you do about the Dix-Waterman entrance” at the intermodal freight terminal.

 But changing traffic patterns or creating truck routes could put even more heavy vehicles on some streets.

Sagovac says the city must find ways to mitigate environmental impacts. She’d like to see new windows and air filtration systems. She also suggested some residents may need to be moved.  This could look like the city’s Bridging Neighborhoods program that relocated some residents impacted by the Gordie Howe Bridge and offered new windows, air filters and HVAC upgrades to others. 

Zoning is another priority for community advocates. Raquel Garcia, executive director of the nonprofit Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, said she tells people to be “really, really careful” where they buy a house because if it’s surrounded by M4 (intensive industrial) zoning, trucking companies could set up an operation there. She wants a specific zoning designation for trucking operations to account for their impacts.  

The city’s Planning Commission is working on the multi-year Zone Detroit process to update zoning. And Sagovac says when she discussed the city’s Delray Neighborhood Framework Plan with the Planning and Development Department, which works separately from the commission, they discussed requiring buffers around certain industrial uses A buffer could include sound walls, vegetative screens of trees and shrubs, or both to reduce the noise and pollution coming from industrial facilities like truck yards. 

New trucking facilities and the opening of Amazon’s fulfillment center at the former State Fairgrounds could add to the number of vehicles on the road from sources like the expanded GM and Stellantis facilities.

Sagovac said the Snyder administration’s study on the Gordie Howe Bridge suggested someone should lead the efforts to develop logistics facilities. She says planning is needed to ensure trucking operations don’t continue to sprout up without any protections for the neighborhood.  

“No one’s doing anything,” she said. “We need a plan.”

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