U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was in Detroit Thursday, Sept. 15, bearing gifts. The secretary joined Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, MDOT Director Paul Ajegba, and others to formally award MDOT a nearly $105 million Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant to convert the recessed I-375 freeway into an urban boulevard, allowing for the reconnection of neighborhoods with the city’s central business district as well as cultural and sports venues.
This week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast features conversations with Zach Kolodin, director of the Michigan Infrastructure Office established by Gov. Whitmer earlier this year, and Jon Loree, MDOT’s I-375 project manager. First, Kolodin talks about his office’s role in overseeing all infrastructure, not just that related to transportation, and then shares his perspective on the I-375 announcement.
Loree explains the benefits and opportunities the grant will provide for the project and talks about his ongoing work in public involvement with corridor neighbors, business owners and myriad interested parties.
The project cost estimate is $270 million, with an additional $30 million anticipated for engineering costs. The INFRA grant will go toward construction and cover more than a third of that.
As Gov. Whitmer observed in her remarks, competition for the INFRA grants was fierce, meaning Michigan’s selection for the fourth-highest amount of all the awards signals the value the project will provide to the community.
With the grant, the project will be able to complete design and begin construction as soon as 2025, at least two years earlier than originally hoped. Work should be completed in 2028. Loree explains how design efforts are beginning and conversations and engagement continue on the future land use and community enhancements.
The project is taking an innovative approach to use the value of the excess property from the freeway-to-boulevard conversion for community enhancements to acknowledge and address historic environmental justice effects from the original freeway construction.
Hello, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson.
Sometimes fixing the roads means to face repercussions on how the roads were originally built, who was included in that process and who was not. Who was in power and who was displaced. And when a generations old piece of infrastructure comes to the end of its useful life. It requires us to decide in our time whether we're just going to put things back exactly as they were, or whether we're going to build back better.
Cranson: That was U.S. Department. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in Detroit to formally announce the $105 million infra grant for a long-awaited project to replace the I375 recessed freeway with an AT grade Urban Blvd, allowing for a reconnection of the Eastside neighborhoods of the central business district as well as cultural and sports venues in downtown Detroit. on today's podcast, I'll be talking first, Zach Kolodin, director of the Michigan Infrastructure Office, established earlier this year by Governor Whitmer. He'll talk about his offices role overseeing all infrastructure, not just transportation, and offer his perspective on the 375 announcement. Later I'll speak with John Loree that's 375 project manager. So again we're kicking off today with Zach Kolodin, who is the director of the Michigan Infrastructure Office set up by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. What was it, Zach? Last year now, 2021?
We launched. March 2022, we were one of the one of the first, I mean probably the first Infrastructure Office set up to leverage that bipartisan infrastructure law for one of the states. And the governor was really forward thinking in that respect.
Cranson: Yeah. So, before we get into the issue of the day and the I-375 significant announcement talk a little bit first about your role, your background and what got you there. I know you worked in the Governor's Legal Office previously.
Cranson: But you know, what interests you about this? How does this feed your passions?
Kolodin: That's a great question. I'm really glad we're doing this on a day when we have some good news to share because I think one of the reasons that the governor set up this office was to jumpstart projects like I-375 and so some of the work that we've been doing with the, with your department, Jeff, with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Governors Federal Affairs team has started to pay off. So, I think it's a really, really great proof of concept. You know, the governor launched this office, Michigan Infrastructure Office, this past spring, and she really did so as part of her commitment to infrastructure, which has been ongoing since 2018, you know. She promised to fix these damn roads back in 2018 when she was running for office, and really every year of this administration. She's rolled out a really significant infrastructure program, so you probably remember that while you live it every day, the Rebuilding Michigan program, the $3.5 billion bond program to rebuild Michigan's trunklines, which she launched in 2019.
Cranson: Yes, I am somewhat familiar with that.
Kolodin: You’ve heard of it?
[laughter from both parties]
Kolodin: And then following on that, which I think was sort of the first down payment on fixing these damn roads. She launched the Michigan Clean Water Plan in 2020, which was a record-breaking one-time investment in Michigan's water infrastructure. And then most recently launched the bipartisan building Michigan together plan, which makes the largest high speed Internet investment in Michigan's history and the largest one time parks investment in Michigan's history. So, this has been a long-standing commitment and we think we can break new records like that. You know the largest investment in renewable energy, for example. That's something that we'd like to be able to say in the next few years. And this office is designed to do just that, to help us break new barriers in infrastructure development and help us deliver on the basic services that every Michigander deserves. So, I'm interested in this work because I really believe in it. I really believe that. This is the core government service and that if you don't provide clean water coming out of that tap and a safe road for folks to drive on to get to work or to the doctor and reliable power even when there's a storm that folks start to lose faith in, the ability of their government or their state or whatever the case may be to solve problems and to deliver for them.
Cranson: I'm really glad you framed it that way because I think that there probably is some question about why when you already have all these cabinet members over these various agencies that deal with these various forms of infrastructure and infrastructure. That should point out, does that just mean, you know, transportation infrastructure and roads and bridges and other things, but about why it's good to have one person kind of overseeing it, you know, bringing it all together, kind of being the conductor. I guess they think it's all the instruments in-sync and especially you know, your point about broadband and what this governor's doing and what Michigan is doing is so important when so much of our state is rural and it's such an important aspect of education and then linking communities. And I mean, you can't say enough about the need for, you know, for broadband access everywhere.
Kolodin: No, you really can't. That's a great observation Jeff, broadband High-Speed Internet is really the 21st century version of roads, right. You know, back in the early in the early 20th century, it was groundbreaking to have a smooth road that could get you to work. Quickly and facilitate the commute, and we've all seen over the last few years that what a lot of workers need, you know, particularly knowledge workers and other workers who are at the center of a of a 21st century economy and. And, you know, the center of a service-based economy, a lot of what they need is high speed Internet connection so that they can, you know, do their job from anywhere and be responsive to the kinds of demands of modern-day employers. So, you know, it's high-speed Internet facilitates connections between people and facilitates. You know, my kids keeping in touch with their grandparents over in Holland, MI and across the country in Massachusetts and it also enables you and I to do our jobs and you know and it's incredibly important for Michigan to stay competitive in sort of knowledge-based industries.
Cranson: Yeah, well said. Well, let's talk about the good news, the issue of the week and talk a little bit about how sometimes fixing the damn roads means actually changing a road and fixing you know, a historical problem.
Kolodin: Yeah, that's a great question. I-375 has helped suburban commuters get to downtown Detroit for decades, but at great cost. So the road was designed with an I toward helping people get to work and not toward building community and facilitating connection in the city of Detroit. And that's really unfortunate because the effect of it, well, the immediate effect. It was to destroy, to prosperous black neighborhoods at Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, and that's a historical wrong that we candidly cannot repair. But what we can do is build something new and something that is centered on the community. You know where that road is. So I-375 currently divides the east side of Detroit with its access to the riverfront and access to Belle Isle and beautiful residential neighborhoods from the vibrant commercial center that is downtown. If you know we were, we were standing next to 375 earlier today, Jeff. And, when you're standing there, you look around. It's a quarter mile of concrete in every direction, a pretty intimidating barrier between the vibrancy of downtown and all those folks that live on the east side. So, what we have the opportunity to do is help knit those communities back together and create opportunities for folks to live close to downtown residential development for folks to build businesses next to downtown and probably will one day be considered part of downtown. Where I-375 is, is today and build more a more walkable, more bikeable, safer community that contributes a variety of amenities like parks and cleaner air and connection between downtown and the river and the riverfront. So, it's a really exciting project and one that's extremely worthwhile
Cranson: It's right in the wheelhouse of Secretary Buttigieg, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who was there for the announcement. And this is exactly the kind of thing he's been talking about. They, as he mentioned, there was tremendous competition for the $1.5 billion available in these infra grants and the fact that this project, you know, got the 4th largest amount of any of those grants, I think it's a real tribute. I mean it's a tribute certainly to the people at MDOT and MDOT planning with the grant application together but to the city officials and the neighbors and everybody who's come together and, you know, really built a consensus around the need for this project and how exciting it is for you to be just a few months on the job and to be able to be part of something like this, talk about what that means.
Kolodin: Absolutely. It is. It is really exciting, and I think that the work that MDOT has done since 2014 when folks started working on this project has been monumental and has built a foundation for the project to succeed. So. you know you mentioned your colleagues and that I think you know Jon Loree, the project director, did I get that right?
Cranson: Yep. He’s the project manager
Kolodin: Yeah that’s right, the project manager. I don't want to mistitle anyone on your podcast. The project manager and Kim Webb, the Metro region director, have been so critical in getting this project to where it is today with, you know, environmental review cleared and now a really significant amount of the funding delivered and enormous credit to them. And then, you know the work that Mayor Duggan and Governor Whitmer and secretary Pete Buttigieg and President Joe Biden have done to create a framework to fund projects like this and connect the dots between the work that's been going on in Detroit to put this project together. And the funding opportunities available has made this possible. So, you know, I think it's a great. It's a great example of the of the work that we can do when we work together at the local, state, and federal level. And I think it's really great for Michigan to get such a big win under our belts so early in the bipartisan infrastructure law rollout process. You know, thinking about my role trying to drive us toward pulling down the maximum amount of federal dollars possible, seeing us take advantage of those opportunities really early in the process, I think shows that we're on the right track. And is a really positive sign and I mean, Jeff, what do you, what do you think about this coming just on the heels of the raise grant opportunity of the $25 million raise grant that Michigan won just a month or two ago.
Cranson: Yeah so today it was really interesting talking with some of my counterparts at USD. The team they were so impressed with everything about today's announcement, you know the setting, the coming together of the neighbors, you know, some plain old folks who are just interested in this project because they live nearby. Obviously, the city officials, the state officials, I think, it showed tremendous credibility on our part as a state to cooperate and pull off something like this. It's only going lead to, you know, a bigger spotlight and more looks for these grants and other discretionary funds going forward. I think they all came away very impressed with what we showed them today.
Kolodin: So yeah, I think Michigan has demonstrated that we can put together high-quality projects and you know that we can also work with our federal partners to get things done.
Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. And I was able to talk with the staffers for Senators Stabenow and Peters who were there, and they were just, they were thrilled. It was just a really good day all the way around. And it's some point I'll be talking more to some of the activists in the community. Some of the people that know the history and, you know, getting their perspective as this goes along, but right now, uh, you know, there's a lot of positive momentum and I think that there are other things, nothing exactly like this one. this one's a little bit unique, but some other things around the state. You know where we can do more to encourage and increase that kind of connectivity.
Kolodin: Agree 100%. Yeah, one of the things that's most exciting about this project is the way that it integrates. Modern design elements and design elements that reflect a need to adapt to a changing climate. Right. So you know, having permeable pavement be part of the project proposal, you're having rain gardens to absorb, You know the increased rainfall that we're experiencing, you know, these are things that will be really helpful for the city of Detroit. And I think it also serves as a model for highlight from for modern highway and Boulevard projects going forward.
Kolodin: So I hope we can build on that.
Cranson: Yeah, and bioretention islands, the more you can do for that kind of sustainable building. Grand Rapids where I live, the city put in a long bike track along Monroe Ave near Riverside Park, which is this, you know, beautiful stretch of public land along the Grand River, and that that has that permeable pavement. And it's really worked out well. To start using that figure applications I think is a good thing. So yeah, so good. Well, Zach, thanks. I'm sure I'll be checking in with you from time to time. As you, you know, get into your job more and take on more and more challenges. I look forward to, you know, hearing how you feel about where things are in a couple months from now.
Kolodin: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me on the on the podcast. And you know, thanks for your partnership and getting the word out about all the great. Work is going on in Michigan.
Cranson: Thank you again Zach. And before we hear from Jon Loree, the project manager, let's listen to what Governor Whitmer had to say in today's event celebrating the grant award.
When it was built I-375 paved through prosperous black community through Black Bottom and Paradise Valley and the unjust decision displaced 130,000 Michiganders and uprooted hundreds of businesses and dozens of houses of worship. It's severely impacted the local economy ranking out years of generational wealth. We cannot change the past. But what we can do is work together to build a more equitable future.
Cranson: Once again, we're talking with Jon Loree, who has been visited on the podcast before. He's the project manager and has 375 project and he can share the details on what this grant means, how it. Helps expedite the project and other details and developments that have happened since the last time we talked about this. So John, thanks for taking time to be here.
Loree: Glad to be here.
Cranson: So $100 million, almost 105 million actually. What does that do for moving this long sought project forward?
Loree: Yes, certainly it is an expensive project. The old the capital construction cost comes in at around 270 million in our future year 2027 dollars and it was always 1 challenging to program coming out of the region's budget and this really introduces some flexibility. In some additional money into our program and it looks like it's going to allow us to look at that 2027 year and reevaluate and move out that construction year. We'll be targeting a 2025 construction year with these infra funds. And it's really an exciting, I think it really shows the priority that the current administration has on these reconnecting Community projects and a real understanding of the benefits that this transformative project is going to bring to the city and the surrounding community.
Cranson: Here we are toward the end of 2022. Obviously, September almost fall and we're talking about design working in the next couple of years getting us to construction in 2025, obviously to you or anybody that you know works on these kinds of huge projects, you understand why they take so long. But can you explain why wouldn't design, you know, take that amount of time?
Loree: Yeah, certainly we just had our design kickoff meeting. Utilities, utilities, utilities is always a big one. We do have. You know, major transmissions for electrical and water main and otherwise that we have to make sure that we're coordinating and working around. This project is unique and innovative and in many ways one of them being that we do have some substantial excess property that'll be available for redevelopment. And so as we're working through our design process, we're also be working through planning with the city on what that land use is. And really, a wonderful opportunity that presented itself as we kind of wrapped up the environmental assessment, really looking at ways to use the value of the excess property to provide community enhancements to give value back to the community through the value of that land that was used to construct the original freeway. So we have a lot of work to do on many fronts around, around moving around, moving this very unique and innovative project forward.
Cranson: So what have you heard? You know so far at the public meetings, in your interaction with people in the neighborhood and, you know, interested parties, whether they're businesses, you know, eastern market and other businesses nearby, and certainly people that lived in Elmwood Park, Lafayette Park, about what they would want to see in development and use of that land?
Loree: Yeah, we've actually shared some early concepts in terms of what that could look like. But really our approach is to really take that a community driven approach to determine what that land use will ultimately look like. When you look at it right now, the freeway is really a considered somewhat of a moat between the city, central business district and the Lafayette development neighborhood. To the east, really, we talked about it with the community as being more of a residential cap. The Boulevard will be on the West side, closer to the central business district, so that that additional space between the neighborhoods and the Boulevard would be looked at as kind of that residential cap where you have mid-rise type developments potentially with low level commercial or retail type opportunities, but certainly there's some opportunities to look at some public space and green space areas. And I think we're just excited to start looking at some of those concepts and what the market can support. And look at those together with the community to figure out, you know what the most appropriate types of developments are.
Cranson: Yeah, that's the really exciting part of this, not just the connectivity between the neighborhoods on in downtown central business district and the sports facilities, the cultural facilities talked about. But what it will look like with, you know, more development in that corridor, mixed development and housing and other things. You know, we've talked a lot about that being able to, you know, fix the mistakes of the past and things that we know now that we didn't know that. And you know, this kind of building of freeways through neighborhoods went on all over the country. It wasn't unique to Detroit. But, I mean, it's exciting for you to be part of something like this, right? I mean, it's got a national spotlight on it. And, you know, you’re in the thick of it, so talk about what it means to you to, you know, someday you'll look back on this and talk to your kids about being involved in this.
Loree: Yeah, I think it's very exciting. And, it's going to be a very collaborative effort, I think, to get to, to get to the finish line in terms of, you know, what we really want to accomplish with everything we know we. The benchmark off of other projects and see that the land use piece and that comes with the freeway to boulevard conversion isn't always handled in the best way and we really want to do that appropriately and use that property to provide, you know, those enhancements which really hasn't been done before in terms of looking at how we can incubate minority businesses within that space, provide affordable housing opportunities within it and really any other types of you know, community healing pieces and really we're hoping that this type of model will be something that as other cities look at this type of project. Will be something that they can take and work from. I'm sure you know, there's always going to be improvements that can be made along the way, but really we're looking to try to set a model for that. Knowing that these types of projects are going to be happening more and more across the country.
Cranson: Yeah, that's exactly right. Taking a close look at this and how it goes, and especially and that came up a lot in the announcement that that issue of collaboration and you know some of the people that really know the history of how the project came to be in the first place, how 375 was built, but it didn't have, you know, it just didn't go on in those days. I don't think at the federal level or at the state level they have that kind of community input. That kind of public outreach and public involvement and it's, you know, it's come to be expected now and it's what the department does part of that came out of NEPA, but even more so you know it's just the right thing to do and it's funny that you talk about it being a mote. The Mayor, Mayor Duggan referred to it as a ditch, I guess either one of those terms works, huh?
Cranson: Yeah it really divided those neighborhoods and the city there. It was very divisive. So, you could look at this as both the, you know, thrilling and daunting challenge. Well tell me what do you see as the most challenging as the data project manager and something like this is it the herding of the cats? The building consensus? Is it the actual construction details and the design? You know that kind of that kind of work? Or is it really the soft skills that come into play?
Loree: Yeah, really, I think they're all important. I think to pull off something like this, there is a lot of herding of the cats and really you know, it's a lot of understanding, listening, and getting people's views and opinions and being able to use those and read those into the project appropriately. But also knowing that there's some things that we can't do and that we have limitations and really being able to articulate those. So, I think that's where you know a lot of the soft skills come into play. But you know we're in that role in the project right now where we're into the design as well. So really, you know the technical and nuts and bolts of how the project is going to be built are very important as well. And you know we talk about challenges; you know how the project is built is certainly one of them looking at how the earthwork is going to work in terms of you know filling in the ditch and the amount of cuts that we have up in the interchange. You know how we balance that and how do we maintain traffic to casino, and you know a very thriving restaurant district in Greek town and access to the riverfront and all the other great destinations around the city and not to mention the special event venues around there with all the major stadiums being right there. So, a lot of challenges just around you know, very, very complex challenges around some of the maintenance of traffic and constructability that comes with this project. So, you really got to wear a lot of hats.
Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you, John. We will be talking more as the project progresses, I'm sure. Really appreciate it. II. Congratulations. I guess on this grant moving the project forward. I wish you tremendous luck in your work overseeing this $300 million project.
Loree: Thank you, Jeff. I'm very excited to be moving it forward.
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 Podcasts and search for talking Michigan transportation.