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Federal Dollars Pave Way for Kalamazoo Road Work

Thu August 20, 2009 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

Few states have been hit as hard by the struggling economy as Michigan. Home to the “Big Three” automakers, the Wolverine state’s unemployment rate rose to 12.6 percent in March — the highest in the nation, according to a Michigan Labor Market Information report. When Vice President Joe Biden visited Kalamazoo, halfway between Detroit and Chicago in southwestern Michigan, in June, his message brought welcome relief.

Joined by the governor and both U.S. senators from Michigan, plus several local dignitaries, Biden, who is overseeing the White House’s recovery efforts, attended a groundbreaking ceremony for road work funded by federal recovery money. A three-year project to rebuild an overpass along Interstate 94 just south of Kalamazoo and to widen the Westnedge Avenue interchange from four lanes to six will create approximately 900 jobs. An added bonus is that the $43.9 million construction project to improve the interchange is being paid for primarily with federal funds.

Not Breaking

the Bank

In total, the Michigan Department of Transportation has budgeted $44 million for construction and another $4 million for construction engineering. According to Nick Schirripa, communications representative with the Southwest Region of MDOT, all the funding comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, except for a “very small amount: about $200,000 for utility work covered by the city of Portage.”

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is an economic stimulus packaged signed into law by President Obama in February. Intended to stimulate the U.S. economy, the $787 billion measure delegates money for federal tax relief, social welfare provisions and domestic spending in areas of education, health care and infrastructure. Highway construction is the biggest single infrastructure item in the final bill, with $27.5 billion allocated for highway and bridge construction projects alone.

It’s good news for the city of Portage, facing budget cuts of $14 million, according to the Kalamazoo News, which estimates the total cost of the project at more than $60 million — in sharp contrast to a total city budget of only $66 million. Luckily, the slashing of staff positions, services and landscaping and grounds maintenance, as well as the $11.7 million cap on capital improvements, will not carry over to road and highway contracts signed with MDOT. Portage, the major commercial district in Kalamazo County, has already committed to a $21 million investment in the project. City Manager Maurice Evans said bids were lower than expected, which further helped the budget.

Schirripa reported that the prime contract has been awarded to Walter Toebe Construction Co. in Wixom, Mich., with construction engineering being handled by Wilcox Associates in Cadillac. He expected to have 15 subcontractors on the job, but said those contracts have yet to be signed.

“We expect that to happen in the coming weeks.”

With only one prime contractor, Schirripa believed integration of project segments and contracts will be easily managed.

All Business

Originally constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Interstate 94 is a heavily traveled commercial artery linking Michigan with Ontario, Canada, Chicago, Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the Twin Cities in Minnesota. It provides an alternate route to Interstate 90 between Chicago and Seattle. According to state government statistics, the section through Kalamazoo County carries more vehicles per day than any other four-lane freeway in the state. Traffic volumes range from 57,000 to more than 81,000 daily.

“This Recovery Act project will help us add vital capacity to one of the busiest sections of commercial highway in the state,” stated Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm. “Expanding and improving this portion of I-94 will provide added incentive for new businesses to locate in southwest Michigan and fuel economic growth all along the I-94 corridor.”

Several sections along I-94 are already being renovated, including the Dan Ryan Expressway in Illinois and the Borman Expressway in Indiana. The Michigan project, which Granholm said will cost $68 million and create 1,888 jobs, encompasses a single-point urban interchange at I-94 and Westnedge Avenue as well as reconstruction and widening of two structures over the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Sound walls will be added for noise abatement.

MDOT anticipates there will be 1,200 direct and indirect jobs created by this project.

“The number of jobs created directly by this project is a moving target and subject to scrutiny by the Federal Highway Administration and Government Accounting Office. There is no calculation yet for that number,” Schirripa said.

“MDOT is widening 1.9 miles of I-94 from four to six lanes [in each direction] between Oakland Drive and Portage Road in Kalamazoo County,” Schirripa detailed, “including building four new bridges.”

In addition, signage will be upgraded and a new traffic signal will be installed on South Westnedge Avenue after the interchange is reconstructed with the more efficient single-point urban interchange design — only the fourth of its kind in the state. Approximately 1,600 ft. (487 m) of South Westnedge Avenue will be widened to accommodate the new interchange and remove the traffic bottleneck posed by the existing bridge carrying I-94 overhead.

Also included in the work is the construction of two new detention basins to improve water quality discharged to the west branch of Portage Creek. The new interchange will leave a lot of greenway. Schirripa explained that the area near the highway will not be developed.

“It will be maintained for drainage. There’s a low spot where the loop ramps are.”


Work will be performed in three phases over three years, with the road scheduled to be open to traffic in November 2011 and final completion set for May 2012. In 2009, work will consist principally of improvements to the existing roadway that are required prior to beginning major reconstruction of the South Westnedge Avenue interchange the following year. Work will begin on the bridge carrying I-94 over the Grand Elk Railroad and Portage Creek, which will require closure of this segment of the Portage Bicentennial Park Trail Way through the fall of 2011.

Construction will begin on the eastbound lanes of I-94 and on the new bridges in 2010. To accommodate that work, all lanes of traffic will be shifted onto the existing westbound I-94.

Westbound I-94 traffic will be shifted onto the new eastbound roadway so work can begin on the new westbound lanes and the new bridges over South Westnedge Avenue and the Grand Elk Railroad as part of the final phase of the project set to begin in 2011.

Two lanes of traffic in each direction will be maintained throughout construction. By using nighttime lane closures, the work won’t significantly impact traffic on South Westnedge Avenue or I-94.

“Construction will be from dawn to dusk, Monday through Saturday,” said Schirripa, with 300 workers onsite each day in 2010 and 2011, when work is at its peak. However, he added, “We just awarded the general contract; benchmarks have yet to be set.”

Nevertheless, plans are already in place for “a couple two-day, overnight total closures of South Westnedge Avenue for demolition of the I-94 bridges over that road.” The planned total closures of Westnedge Avenue will be a challenge, he admitted.

“This is the main commercial corridor for the city of Portage, with every heavy traffic. This closure will involve carefully choreographed detours and will require expedited demolition of bridges.”

There will be approximately 1,500 tons (1,360 t) of steel used in construction. Construction will be relatively standard and straight forward, Schirripa predicted. Although he doesn’t anticipate any other unusual difficulties or challenges, he’s aware that some may crop up: often environmental, he said, but sometimes involving utility relocation, existing infrastructure to work around, etc.

“There are lots of utility issues with this project, but it’s fairly routine. There’s no issue we can’t resolve and MDOT planners and engineers have worked hard to resolve issues before they arise.”

MDOT also has worked with area business owners and residents to make everyone aware of the project and its potential impact. A project Web site and a Twitter page keep travelers informed about the project, updates and developments.

“The project has a community-driven plan for aesthetics,” Schirripa noted. “MDOT teamed with several groups, including the cities of Portage and Kalamazoo, Southwest Michigan First, the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce and Western Michigan University on the context-sensitive design.” CEG

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