Big rigs and little streets; Detroit weighs new rules to balance trucking jobs, neighborhood health

Next to Jesus Huerta’s southwest Detroit home sits his big rig semi-truck and two trailer beds. It’s easily recognizable by the bald eagle on the front.

"That’s my American dream right there," he said one rainy June afternoon. 

It’s got the paint job to match, too. Streaks of red, white, and blue decorate the sides, along with stars, and Tweety Bird from the Looney Toons. Any more patriotic and the muffler would hum the Star-Spangled Banner as it drove by.

Huerta has driven a truck his entire adult life. An immigrant from Mexico who settled in Detroit decades ago, he’s carved out his own American dream as a truck-owning small businessman whose job takes him from Warren and Pontiac to cities around the Midwest - sometimes further.

Last month, it was Kansas City and Dallas. 

Driving his truck is a "duty" he says. It’s "how we make a living." 

Huerta has been pulling out of the same lot for the last 20 years. Those who have been his neighbors for that long are used to living next to a big rig owner and all the potential inconveniences that come with it.

Huerta has been pulling out of the same lot for the last 20 years. Those who have been his neighbors for that long are used to living next to a big rig owner and all the potential inconveniences that come with it. (Photo via Jack Nissen)

"For the people who do drive, we love it. You gotta love it. You get to go a lot of places, it’s like you get paid to travel - even if it’s not always enough," he said. 

Huerta has been pulling out of the same lot for the last 20 years. Those who have been his neighbors for that long are used to living next to a big rig owner and all the potential inconveniences that come with it. The piercing sound when he brakes, the shaking of their home’s foundation when he drives by, and the diesel emissions that stick in the air afterward. 

But he’s gotten complaints from other neighbors. People living in newer homes further down the road take issue with his truck. That frustrates him.

"You just moved in a few weeks ago, I’ve been living here 20 years," he says. "Why should I have to change where I drive for you?"

Navigating the streets of Detroit in a big rig requires finesse. Sometimes, that navigation takes drivers down local streets not meant for flatbeds carrying material across the Ambassador Bridge. 

In Huerta’s experience, he’s using the local streets to get back home. Detroit is one of the few cities that lets its residents park their trucks on the property. But truck traffic has picked up quite a bit in recent years, magnifying the growing frustration from residents that can’t sleep through the night and find larger cracks in their homes every time one passes by. 

"They’re like mini-explosions when one goes by," said Raquel Garcia, the executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. 

Hundreds of people live on the roads where "mini-explosions" can go off at all times of the day and night, she says.

Garcia has overseen truck counts in the community, where volunteers tally the number of big rigs that drive down local roads. "We were watching them at 10, 11, 12, 1 in the morning, they’re empty, they don’t have big cargo, then they leave and have a big trailer so we hear banging and dropping around 2 in the morning."

And with the construction of the Gordie Howe Bridge set to expand capacity for more semi-trucks deliveries, those experiences are likely to continue and even increase. Some studies predict the number of trucks traveling over the international border by 2030 will increase by the thousands.

The Detroit City Council is considering ordinances that will regulate truck traffic in the city in the next few months. That will likely include specific routes that trucks will be permitted to travel. 

But the prospect of regulation means residents will soon confront trucking and the complex relationship the city has with the unpolished industry, be it small business owners or massive distribution companies that assign them. 

Detroit trucking: a source of income and culture

District 6 Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda‐López knows what side she stands on. In an Instagram post last May, she filmed semi-trucks, a cement mixer, a tanker, and another flatbed driving in front of her home - each passing with a roar from its engine. The post had animations of people covering their ears.

"People are really annoyed. I had several residents message me saying ‘we agree, this is an issue,’" Castañeda‐López said, recalling the post. 

But it’s also an issue that’s "been normalized" she said. "It’s always been like that. It’s just the status quo."

It’s a part of life in Detroit that has persisted, despite objections from its residents for change.

As the environmental vision’s Garcia sees it, "if you sat on any Grosse Pointe or Harper Woods street, you would never see a diesel truck."

The councilwoman and Garcia have been among some of the loudest critics of trucking in the area. The byproducts of diesel further contaminate an already polluted atmosphere while the constant presence of trucks concerns parents worried about their kids playing in the street. 

But both also acknowledge the significance that the industry means to the area and untangling its relationship of pros and cons isn’t easy. Trucks contribute to the public health issues in the area but have provided economic benefits as well, giving people like Huerta a means to feed his kids. 

"It’s a really complicated relationship with diesel trucks because many of our neighbors - they drive," said Garcia. 

And it isn’t just a way to make money for people that live here. "There’s a cultural significance to them," said Rev. Adalberto Espinoza, who preaches at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on Central Avenue.

Espinoza is part of that culture, too. He’s tossed water on trucks and the families that use them during the community’s annual ‘Blessing of the Semis’ for the past five years.

"Blessing a vehicle is a Mexican tradition," he said. "They believe in that it protects them while on the road. They travel everywhere so they ask for God’s protection." The ceremony isn’t a short day either - between 40 and 50 trucks will park near the church to be blessed every August. 

Even Espinoza admits, though, the number of semi-trucks that travel by his church has grown "significantly" in the last 10 years. Much of the traffic near his church can be connected to the large trucking distribution center on the other side of Central Avenue. And just beyond are acres of materials waiting to be shipped outside the city.

Both Garcia and Huerta say they have also noticed a trend of more traffic where they live, which is near Clark Avenue. In 2015, 25 acres of land leftover from the General Motors bankruptcy converted into a 190,000 square-foot logistics center.

The new center, a part of the Clark Street Technology Park, brought capacity for 350 trucks. Its location next to Michigan Avenue offers a main arterial for accessing highways. But only blocks in the other direction are rows of homes with street signs saying truck travel is not permitted.

Big trucks, bigger consequences

But it’s not the single truck driver parking next to Huerta's house that has residents concerned. It’s what’s to come.

Prior to the pandemic, the Detroit-Windsor border was already one of the busiest in North America, allowing between 8,000 and 10,000 border crossings a day. Simone Sagovac, the program director of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition said the Gordie Howe Bridge’s completion would lead to a 120% increase in truck traffic, which would mean thousands of additional trucks pouring in and out of the city every day.

This worries residents for a few reasons. Southwest Detroit and particularly Del Ray, the neighborhood where the bridge will touch Detroit first are already some of the most polluted in the state.

Diesel exhaust, the main byproduct of semi-truck engines, can have adverse health consequences on people’s lungs, hearts, kidneys and is known to aggravate those that have asthma. Anyone working or living within 100 yards of where the fumes are emitted can suffer from those consequences - particularly elderly adults and children whose lungs are still developing.

Sagovac says a lot of children live in these areas, which also carries a safety concern when someone isn’t looking or a truck drives down a street where it's not permitted.

"The area - there’s very few vacant homes and (it has) the highest number of children in the city and the highest number of children under 5," she said. 

RELATED: Did Detroit's air quality worsen the city's COVID-19 outbreak?

One woman cited in a health study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health said she won’t let her grandchildren play outside the home because of safety issues. "I feel like a prisoner in my own home," she said.

That study focused on another public health issue residents face when surrounded by so much travel: noise. Those ‘mini explosions’ that SDEV’s Garcia mention won’t just wake someone up. They increase stress levels, damage one’s hearing, and are associated with respiratory and cardiovascular issues. 

The U.S. doesn’t have noise standards, despite a growing consensus about public health issues surrounding noise pollution. Whereas global health groups recommend noise standards of 53 decibels, truck traffic in Detroit was found to be several times louder than that. 

That might be a truck driving over a speed bump or slamming on its breaks. 

And during U-M’s study, volunteers that did truck counts recorded several hundred of them traveling down local roads not meant for them. 

Detroit has a complicated relationship with trucking. The industry has brought income and environmental issues to area neighborhoods

Detroit has a complicated relationship with trucking. The industry has brought income and environmental issues to area neighborhoods (Photo via Jack Nissen)

It’s not easy knowing the specific health effects of each of these pollutants on residents because they all collide at the same time, said Stuart Bartman, who headed the study. "This is the challenge in studying noise, whenever you have air pollutants, you also have a lot of noise, and teasing them out is hard."

And those issues could get worse with the arrival of an expected increase in truck traffic. 

Truck routes and idling ordinances

The Gordie Howe Bridge project is not the first time the region has seen changes to the supply chain. The continued evolution of the Detroit Intermodal Freight project since 1994 for instance helped streamline shipping between railcar and truck. The completion of Ambassador Bridge Gateway in 2014 accommodated local and international traffic.

The new bridge and potential routes and ordinances will continue to improve the supply chain, groups representing Michigan truckers said in a statement.

"The goals of accommodating trucks at both the busiest border crossing and the ‘Crossroads of the Midwest’ (I-75, I-96, I-94) have improved out of necessity over recent years," the Michigan Trucking Association said in a statement. "Now with the more than 15 years discussion about a new bridge, plenty have concerns and refinements, the direct interstate connections and routes appears to acknowledge a natural evolution of further improvements to the benefit of the local community, the region and indeed, the continent."

Southwest Detroit residents and the 6th district representative also believe proposed ordinances would offer solutions.

Currently, there are very few rules that govern semi-trucks around the city - a rarity in large cities trafficked by so much industry. Restrictions on where to drive, limits on idling, or where they can park are difficult to enforce.

Those rules might change as momentum at the city council appears to be growing after they commissioned a report to study the most feasible routes for trucks to travel after getting off the Gordie Howe Bridge. A version of that study, released in April and consulted the community had recommended many of the main roads that connect to I-75 while restricting any local streets to truck usage. 

The study also recommended fixes to several major intersections, including:

  • Vernor Highway/Dix Avenue
  • Livernois Avenue between Michigan and Vernor
  • Junction Street/Vernor Highway
  • Fort Street/Schaefer Highway

The ordinances would come with increased law enforcement in places with the most frequent violations. Police actions would include tracking sites most frequently violated, increasing fines for idling and weight violations, and requiring permits for local deliveries.

The MTA, which reviewed the study but was not consulted prior to its publishing, said it "appears to really be a culmination of incremental improvements over several decades to minimize the impact of freight deliveries. The traffic has been present for years; the dedicated truck route improvements will help accommodate all stakeholders."

RELATED: What's in the Gordie Howe bridge?

While community figures like Castañeda‐López welcomed a change in tone and proof that rules might be considered this year, several community groups and researchers at the University of Michigan thought the study failed to take into account the number of vehicles that would be using the recommended routes, calling it "a fatal flaw of the report."

The cost of upgrading the roads and signs would be about $11 million.

Castañeda‐López thinks the recommended routes would detour truckers about a quarter-mile at the most. She hopes to see a final draft of recommended routes in front of the city council by August.

"This community driving the conversation on this thing. I hope the stars align. I think the conversation has progressed and there’s more openness - but of course, once the legislation comes to the table, we’ll see." 

Jack Nissen is a reporter at FOX 2 News Detroit. You can contact him at