On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Brian Travis, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) project manager on the I-96 Flex Route in western Oakland County.
The $269 million project, allowing for the use of shoulders as travel lanes during peak travel times, is MDOT’s second use of the traffic innovation. In 2016 and 2017, contractors built the first phase of a Flex Route, a $125 million investment on US-23 north of Ann Arbor.
A project is in design now for a second phase, at an estimated cost of $146 million, to extend the Flex Route from north of 8 Mile Road to I-96.
Travis says the Oakland County project is on schedule and talks about the three-year timeline. He also touts the safety and efficiency benefits the added capacity during peak travel hours will provide.
Funding for this project is made possible by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Rebuilding Michigan program to rebuild the state highways and bridges that are critical to the state's economy and carry the most traffic. The investment strategy is aimed at fixes that result in longer useful lives and improves the condition of the state's infrastructure.
Jeff Cranson: Hi, welcome again to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Cranson.
Cranson: Today, I’m very pleased to be talking with Brian Travis, who is MDOT's project manager on its second flex route project. This is historic because the department launched its first just a few years ago on US-23 between Ann Arbor and Brighton. And this one would be at I-96 in an area east of Brighton that is heavily congested, heavily traveled. And while we've got projects going on all over the state that are going to benefit people in terms of smoother pavement and an easier ride, there aren't very many where you can actually promise something that really improves your quality of life. Easing your commute, the flow of goods and services, and that's why the flex route is really exciting. So, Brian, thanks for being here, and can you explain what a flex route is?
Brian Travis: Sure, Jeff, thanks for having me on today. So, the flex route has been around for a few years now. We have one, like you mentioned, on US-23. And really, it's intended to utilize our existing infrastructure to help alleviate congestion, to make motorist travel time more reliable, and to improve safety. So, I think that's what this project will accomplish. Like you've mentioned, this is a very heavily traveled corridor: 96 between 275 and Kent Lake Road. Extrapolate that a little bit further, that's a lot of Detroit and Lansing traffic that travels this every day. So we see directional rush hour eastbound in the morning, westbound in the afternoon. And rather than expanding the footprint of the road, adding an extra lane full time, we are able to utilize the wide shoulder that we have there currently, and install the flex route. Which we really don't need the extra capacity 24 hours a day, it's really just during those peak periods. So that's what this flex route will accomplish. It'll give motorists that fourth lane. Most days in the morning, it'll give us that extra lane; in the afternoon, it'll be going westbound. That extra lane will be there. And then we can also use it during special events. If there's an incident on the freeway, or if traffic is just traveling at a slower than normal pace due to something going on downstream, that extra lane can be opened. I think it is a very good fix for the problem that we see in that area currently.
Cranson: So, one of the questions we get most often about the US-23 flex route is why it's allowed to be used certain hours but not all the time. People think, well geez, it's there, it just looks like an empty lane. And the Federal Highway Administration has some specific guidelines and reasons why they grant permission to do this on a limited basis. Can you talk about that?
Travis: Yeah, so there are certain design requirements that a lane has to meet. Oftentimes at these flex routes, we are not able to meet all those, like having the proper shoulder width there against the median barrier wall. So this works in a temporary condition used only part of the day, whereas if we had to meet all the correct design requirements, that would require expansion of that footprint, which is a lot more difficult than it sounds. There's a lot of, number one, extra cost when you have extra pavement. There's also environmental impacts that we have to consider, tight right of way limits on the outsides of the roadway, and then some of the bridges even have to get widened because you can't fit a full-time extra lane under those without doing so. So, there's a handful of design requirements to consider to have a lane in operation 24 hours a day that couldn't be met in this location. But having a flex route solves that problem.
Cranson: Well, and the good thing was that we had some structural advantages already in place in terms of the shoulder width and some of the bridges on that corridor, right?
Travis: Yeah, so for the most part this is a very wide corridor. You had that median lane through there most of the way. So the pavement really is already there, it's just the fine details, the fine design details that really couldn't be met for the whole corridor. So this was really the most cost-effective solution for it.
Cranson: And one of the advantages, obviously, people who think that we're too dependent on the automobile, and we should be encouraging more multi-modal transportation is that this doesn't have the environmental clearance and nearly the disruption environmentally that it would if you had to build a lane and do all the things involved in that. And if it turns out that people really are driving less, and future generations are either using automated vehicles that can use less capacity because of their more efficient operation or because they're using other modes of transportation, then this can go back to being a shoulder, right?
Travis: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the complaints about progress and expansion is like you just said; you have to expand the footprint or carve a new road out where there used to be a farm field or something. So the less of that we can do the better. So again, just taking advantage of the existing roadway that we have there. Only now, we're going to have a smooth safe driving surface and alleviate congestion while we're at it. And like you said, if for some reason traffic volumes dip in the future and people are driving less, it can always go back to being a shoulder.
Cranson: And it's probably no surprise that the first two candidates for these, US-23 and I-96, both feed in and out of Livingston county, which has been one of the fastest growing counties in the state for many years. This is important to easing that congestion and making for a safer commute. So, can you talk a little bit about where things stand with 96, how progress is going, and whether you feel like you're on target?
Travis: Sure. So we started late March of this year. And it is a three-year project. So, starts here in 2022, and it will be complete and open to traffic by the end of 2024. So we are on year one of three. Right now, we are rebuilding the eastbound pavement from Kent Lake Road to Wixom. And all the traffic is over on the westbound side. And then we're also doing some median work between Wixom and I-275. So really the whole corridor is under construction, all 12 miles. We are on schedule. The first couple months out here were preparation for this stage of work. So we did a lot of temporary widening of the westbound shoulder, we did some pavement repairs on westbound, we built temporary crossovers in the median, and that was all to prepare for this stage of traffic, for switching eastbound onto the existing westbound lanes. So now if you've driven past there, you've probably seen a lot more activity over there on the very west end heading east. So we've opened up a lot of the pavement there, where we've started to install sewer, some culverts. We've built the subbase, so the sand that you see out there. And now we're starting to place aggregate stone there, and that's the material that we'll pave on top of, and it’s concrete pavement. We're still probably at least a few weeks out from concrete paving, but the whole train is starting to move down the road now. So, making some good progress, and we've got a lot of work ahead of us. It's early July now, and we'll be open to traffic in the late fall of this year. So, we'll put traffic back on their original bounds, and then hit it hard again starting next spring.
Cranson: So, when the traffic goes back, I guess, just to understand the timeline—you don't mean that it'll go back in the fall with that added capacity. That still comes later, right?
Travis: Correct, and I'm glad you asked that question. The flex route, the added lane, will not be in use until the end of 2024 when the project is complete. So, some of that infrastructure may start going in, some of the overhead gantries and things like that, but that will not be operational right away.
Cranson: Stay with us, we'll have more on the other side of this important message.
Narrator: Know before you go. Head on over to Mi Drive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to michigan.gov/drive.
[Cars driving past]
Cranson: So, a lot of road and bridge projects involve some short-term inconvenience for some long-term benefits, this one more so than most in that you're really talking about making a huge difference down the road. What are you hearing from the community leaders, you know, the people on the corridor that you interact with and that you and your staff get questions from about this? Are they mostly understanding of what it's going to mean in the future and understanding that you just got to bite the bullet, but you'll be better off on the other side?
Travis: Yeah, from what I’ve seen, we've had a really positive response from the local community. I don't think anyone wants a three-year project out there. We understand how impactful it is, but we did a lot of outreach over the last few years during the design process of the project, so the local leaders knew it was coming. So, they've done what they can do to prepare the motoring public. Again, no one likes to have to drive through a work zone. We'll take calls and emails and make adjustments as we can and try to listen to the public. If something's not working out there, we'll make adjustments. But for the most part, everyone is understanding. And they can see the work happening. So when we have ramps closed, we have lanes closed, obviously it's for a reason. So I think most are understanding. I think, obviously, the community will be ready for it to be open and in use by the end of ‘24. But we're really doing what we can to maintain mobility and keep everyone informed. We have a project website, www.drivingoakland.com, that anyone can go to and find the latest for lane closures. We have a 24/7 phone hotline that people can call, and it'll be answered at most hours of the day. If not, they'll call you back first thing in the morning. So, a lot of good outreach, a lot of good resources for people to reach out to us with questions.
Cranson: Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned the website. We'll definitely include that in the show notes. I know Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist was out there just a couple of weeks ago. He loves infrastructure, loves transportation—the engineer in him makes him very curious about these things. And I’m sure he asked some good questions. Can you talk a little bit about what your conversation was like with him?
Travis: Sure. Yeah, I know, and it was nice to meet him out there. He was very interested in what was going on. He wanted to, similarly as you're asking, wanted to know about the flex route, how that works, how that's going to affect the area and traffic. And also about the progress of the job, the schedule, the workforce, who's out here working for you contractor-wise, what kind of equipment is out here. So, very interested in seeing the Rebuilding Michigan program up and running and seeing how it impacts the local community here.
Cranson: So, this is an innovation in and of itself. The flex route, like I said, it's only the second one of these in Michigan. But within this larger innovative project, what kinds of innovations are you putting to work or are the contractors putting to work, and what have you learned along the way?
Travis: Sure. So these are large projects, and they're tight schedules. Large projects, there's a lot of material that's getting moved in and out, a lot of equipment, a lot of trucks. And so anytime a contractor can streamline that process or make things more efficient, they will. So, just seeing a little bit of that. We have a concrete batch plant, for instance, that's at Milford Road in I-96, and that's set up by the contractor. They elect to put that there because it makes trucking material in and out much easier, saves them time. They are also crushing some of the existing concrete pavement, and that will be reused as the base that they pave on. So again, they're taking advantage of what's there and making use of that. And just trying to, again, the less times you have to move material, the less trucks you have to bring in and out, the better, the more efficient they'll be. So, that's some of the efficiencies we've seen. Other than that, it's a lot of work ahead of us, and it's just getting people and equipment dedicated to it day in and day out.
Cranson: To put this in context, remind me of the total cost, and where does this fit in versus other projects you've supervised?
Travis: This job costs $269 million. And this is one of a handful in our region that are in this ballpark for the dollar amount, which is larger than any job I’ve worked on in my career. And I think, even as recent as about seven years ago, we had a project around 150 million dollars, and that was, at the time, the largest project that MDOT had ever delivered. So, this is above and beyond that. It's something that we are excited about. I think the industry is excited about it, and this is thanks to the Rebuilding Michigan funding that we have. And I think it's long overdue—I think we've been underfunded, we've had projects that have needed to get done in this region and the state for a long time. So it's refreshing to see it happening.
Cranson: Yeah, well said. And the director, Paul Ajegba himself, is a huge fan of this. He was a region engineer in the University region that includes the US-23 corridor and was able to push for and see to fruition the first flex route. So he's excited about that. In fact, we're going to take a second and listen to something he said about that when we produced a video a few years back to celebrate that opening.
Paul Ajegba [recording]: I think US-23 corridor is the perfect place to try this innovation. It's directional traffic where, in the morning, people going into Ann Arbor southbound is congested. Northbound, there's a lot of capacity. And then in the evening, people coming out of Ann Arbor, it's congested, and southbound has capacity. So if you really look at it that way, you don't really need a permanent third lane there for 24/7-hour traffic. That's really not there. It’s mostly am peak hour and pm peak hour traffic.
Cranson: So, looking forward, what do you think happens to that corridor from here? Do you see this possibly being extended either way in future years, or will this probably be the only flex route on that segment for a while?
Travis: Well, I think it would make sense to connect the US-23 flex route to this one on 96. I believe that is the goal here eventually. I don't know the timing for that, obviously, all depends on funding. But I think that would make this even more effective. Anytime you can connect pieces of the roadway, the better, because as it currently stands, this extra lane will have to terminate somewhere. But down the road, if this can continue on to US-23, make its way down to the flex route that's in use now. I believe actually there are plans currently in the projects being designed to extend the flex route that's already on 23 up towards 96. So I think it's going to happen, it's just a matter of when.
Cranson: Yeah, we hear that a lot from people that commute regularly between Livingston county and Ann Arbor. And they say they really like it, but they wish it could go all the way to 96. So extending 23 to 96 would be, I think, well received by a lot of people. So Brian, thanks again for taking time to talk about this. I don't know if there's anything else you want to add. I guess maybe a well thought out plug for driving through the work zone with great attentiveness and an eye toward the workers.
Travis: Yeah, absolutely. I’m glad you said that because I can never stress that enough. Please, if you're driving through the work zone, be alert. Understand that there is active work going on, and traffic conditions can change very quickly. Traffic might be stopped ahead of you, so please keep your eyes on the road. Pay attention to all the signage because it's there for a reason.
Cranson: Yeah, well said. Okay, well, thank you again, and good luck.
Travis: All right, thanks for having me, Jeff. Take care.
Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to Apple podcast and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.