On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, conversations about how grants from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), will help the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) rebuild or shore up major roads and bridges over the next few years.
First, Beckie Curtis, director of MDOT’s Bureau of Bridges and Structures, talks about the big news that MDOT received a $73 million federal grant to replace the 85-year-old Lafayette Avenue Bridge in Bay City. It is MDOT’s second-oldest movable bridge.
Curtis also explains where the bridge fits with priorities and efforts to rebuild or replace other aging bridges on the state network.
Later, Niles Annelin, policy section manager at MDOT, explains the broader grant process and the work involved in applying for and winning IIJA grants.
These include a $105 million grant for the I-375 Reconnecting Communities project in Detroit, which involves replacing the depressed freeway with an at-grade urban boulevard, accommodating multi-modal users. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg joined Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to announce the grant in September 2022.
Hello, this is the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson. Today I'm going to be talking first about the Lafayette Avenue Bridge in Bay City, which everybody knows is in poor condition. You can see rebar through the warm pavement and the concrete on the sidewalks is crumbling, and MDOT had hoped to replace the bridge as far back as 2019, but had to delay it because of projected costs increasing. So I'm going to talk about that in the context of other bridges on the system and what the needs are, with Beckie Curtis, who is the director of MDOT's Bureau of Bridges and Structures and I want to apologize to listeners for any noise they hear. In the background there's some renovations going on at the Van Wagoner building in Lansing, so that will explain if you hear any pounding or drilling or anything. Later I'm going to talk to Niles Annelin in the Bureau of Planning at MDOT. He has a great familiarity with the broader IIJA Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, federal Grant Process and what else MDOT has received and is looking for. So first we're going to talk with Beckie. Beckie, thanks for being here.Beckie Curtis:
Oh, always happy to be here and talk about bridges.Jeff Cranson:
So first a question that is not germane to the Lafayette Avenue Bridge alone, but something I've always wondered and I kind of know a little bit about this because I've researched it, but I think that the general layman probably doesn't, and it's common sense to you but why do bridges freeze before roads?Beckie Curtis:
Well, the bridges are suspended in the air and so they don't have that ground heat to keep having any of that geothermal effect of the ground under them, and so they freeze first.Jeff Cranson:
So it's that simple.Beckie Curtis:
As far as I'm aware.Jeff Cranson:
All right. So, back to the theme of this episode. MDOT applied for $73 million in federal grants for this bridge, specifically the Lafayette Avenue Bridge, and that's what the US DOT granted. So what do you think captured the federal grant makers attention and I know that's just speculation.Beckie Curtis:
Well, there are actually really specific criteria that we had to meet to apply for the grant And so we did screen our inventory to see which of our projects best met the intention of the notice, the funding opportunity that federal highway put out, and we felt that the Lafayette Bridge Grant met strongly met, actually all six criteria And it looked like the US DOT agreed with us because we were awarded the $73 million And that was the maximum that was eligible for this particular project, so it was about 80% of the construction costs.Jeff Cranson:
So where does that total cost stand now? I guess, if that's 80%, that tells us it's in the 90 million range. Is MDOT able to make up the difference?Beckie Curtis:
We are. We are you mentioned you know that this project had been delayed and when we first started looking at it at the scoping stage, you know original estimates were probably closer to about 45, 46 million dollars when we decided to do the replacement. It's a complicated project. We did, you know, we worked with the CMGC in order to do the design of it, because bascule bridges are significantly more complex than your standard freeway interchange would be. And through that process you know the economy change bridge cost started going up. Our bridge replacement costs have doubled since 2018. And so, towards the end of the project, we were seeing these large spike in costs and the estimates started coming in more in the 90 million dollar range, and that's when we realized we needed to put a pause on the project, we needed to evaluate what we could do for cost savings and we needed to figure out how to come up with a funding mechanism to still deliver this. You know this project that was going to be really important to maintaining mobility in that area.Jeff Cranson:
So I got to throw up the engineering term flag here on CMGC. Can you explain what that is and why it makes sense for this kind of project?Beckie Curtis:
Sure, that's construction manager general contractor, Ii believe, would be the spelling out, the acronym. And so what makes sense in this project is we do a competitive selection for finding a contractor who's willing to work with us during the design phase, and they then can bring in information on what equipment is available, how they might construct the bridge, and that can inform the design. And so, in sort of a collaborative method, we work with the contractor to come up with the most efficient structure that's going to meet our needs as an owner and that is going to be able to be delivered, you know, safely and efficiently to the contractor. At the end of the process we had that significant cost increase, and so we did end up, you know, deferring and and reevaluating, and that's where we're at now.Jeff Cranson:
We talked about being near the end of its service life, or you have in the past. Anyway it's 85 years old. That seems like definitely beyond the service life. Where does this fit, I guess, in comparison to other bridges on the state system and age and priority?Beckie Curtis:
So it is our second oldest movable bridge. MDOT maintains 12 movable bridges and and Lafayette is the second oldest and so the most movable bridges compared to our standard structures are, of course, extremely expensive, because you're not just talking about building a bridge to span, you know, a distance of some nature, but you're also needing that bridge to open, and you need that bridge to open reliably. So we're making a giant structure that's heavy and strong enough to carry, you know, full MDOT legal loads. This bridge carries sugar beets, so full sugar beet trucks to the sugar beet factory on a routine basis, and we're just going to be able to open and have all that expensive machinery to open reliably. And that's actually one of the biggest concerns with this bridge that the machinery was aging to the point where the reliability of the structure was reduced and it needed to be replaced. So this really expensive bridge is part of our big bridge inventory. We have 55 bridges in our big bridge inventory. These are large deck bridges, so greater than 100,000 square feet. They're unique or complex or, you know, they're one of the movable bridges. MDOT maintains those bridges and we try to keep them in good or fair condition, mostly because they're probably too expensive to replace, and so those bridges can easily be 10 to 15 times the cost of our standard bridge. And then, of course, when you look at our overall inventory, we've got around 4,500 bridges that meet the definition of a bridge according to federal government, so that's greater than 20 feet in span length. 26% of those are in good condition, so that's great, and 67% are in fair condition, and that's an issue because those are maintenance and rehabilitation needs that if we can't get to, they're going to fall into poor condition. Poor condition bridges, which we have about 7% right now. Those are generally turned into replacement candidates instead of rehabilitation, and the problem there while 7% doesn't seem like a big number, replacements are 400% more than a rehabilitation project, and so it's really critical that we have the right amount of funding to be able to do those cheaper rehabilitation projects at the right time, because, frankly, we can't afford to be a replacement only program.Jeff Cranson:
When you talk about being the second oldest movable bridge. We've had a lot of problems both in Grand Haven and in Charlevoix with them. I think it's mostly the machinery, the up and down machinery. What do you think is the prognosis for those two bridges?Beckie Curtis:
So we have a team that meets to talk about all of our movable bridges and we really try to attack it with a combination of maintenance and larger capital projects. So we don't have to go to that full replacement because, like I mentioned, it's very expensive. And so with that big bridge program we are investing in doing those maintenance and operation projects. sometimes every five years, but definitely every 10 years we're going in there and it could include full replacement of the equipment. So for both of those structures right now we think that through either significant work on the equipment or in combination with minor structural repairs in the structure, that we are able at this point to continue operating them.Jeff Cranson:
But when you start looking at bridges with a 100 year lifespan, let's say out into the future, is when we need to start planning when we would be replacing each bridge and how we're really going to afford these large one time costs, so on top of just being a newer bridge, that's going to be more reliable both in terms of the operational machinery and in terms of the bridge deck, and I know it was considered scour critical, so obviously things will be short up in terms of how it interacts with the water, but it'll also include a shared use path and a sidewalk, so it's just going to be better all the way around for the people who use it, right.Beckie Curtis:
Yeah, Lafayette makes a lot of this project makes a lot of improvements, both for the motoring public, because we're going to have more reliable operation of the structure it's going to be closed less frequently but also there's safer pedestrian and bicycle access across the Saginaw River, not only, we're upgrading the railings to be the height needed for bicycles but also the intersection is being redone and that's going to allow for better access. This bridge connects Bay City to the Hillground Island, which is the home of the Boys and Girls Club and the Bay City Rowing Club, and Nine-Agr Bigelow Park, and so there is a lot of need for the pedestrian and bicycle access at this location.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, and you know every time you do one of these you can take a look at things and the needs that maybe didn't seem weren't necessary 85 years ago or you know people weren't thinking about. So , that's always a good part of this. What do you think going forward with, more money still in the IIJA pool for grants. Does your Bureau have any outstanding applications out there, or was this really the biggest one for a while?Beckie Curtis:
This was the biggest one that we'd submitted this year and we're gonna look. We have a couple of other large bridges that are possibly going to be entering into the program towards the end of the of the grant application cycle, but it's getting into the weeds, maybe a little bit. One of the challenges of a grant program is that they would like a project that's near to construction and it's hard as an owner to work towards building a new project that may, might be necessary, but with uncertain funding. So when we get formula program dollars, we're able to, you know, review our inventory for many of the same criteria that's in this grant application, decide what project is the most appropriate, you know, based on the funding that we're given, and then go forward, do the design, get close to construction and deliver the project. When you're talking about a grant application, that funding is uncertain. We don't know if we're gonna get the rest of the funding, and so there's kind of a gamble that needs to be taken of are you able to fund this if you don't get the grant, or are you 100% reliant on getting a grant, of which you know there were not very many grants given out across the country for this round of bridge grants, and so we were lucky enough to get one. Somewhat lucky and somewhat deserving, like I said, because we did try to select a project that met all the criteria. But it makes it challenging for us to count on that in the future because we don't know what other projects across the nation are being submitted at the same time.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, Lafayette Bridge definitely met a lot of the criteria. I read through that you had laid out for federal officials and everything seemed to line up really well on this one. So Congratulations. This is a good thing. You know. One bridge at a time, I guess Anything else you want to add to the understanding of this?Beckie Curtis:
The bridge is going to- it's just a long process for these moveable bridges, there's a lot of parts to order, and so I believe we're planning on a letting later in this fiscal year, and construction won't be finished, though, until 2026.Jeff Cranson:
Good for you. The timeline is important. I forgot to ask about that. So, yes, managing expectations.Beckie Curtis:
Right, we got the money, but it is going to take a little while to deliver the project.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, for sure, okay. Well, thank you Becky. Very helpful, as always.Beckie Curtis:
Yeah, thanks, have a great day.Jeff Cranson:
You too. So I'll be back in just a minute with the second guest on this week's episode, Niles Annelin, who is a policy section manager in the Bureau of Planning at MDOT.MDOT Message:
Did you know that most work zone crashes are caused by inattentive motorists? It only takes a split second of distraction to dramatically change lives forever. The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you to slow down, follow all signs and pay attention when driving through work zones, because all employees deserve a safe place to work. Work zone safety, we're all in this together.Jeff Cranson:
We're back with Niles Annelin, who is a policy section manager in the Bureau of Planning at the Department of Transportation. Niles has been working on a number of things involving these grant programs. In fact, that's not all he does. He has a pretty broad portfolio, but I've asked him today just to kind of put in context what I talked about earlier with Becky in terms of the $73 million grant for the Lafayette Avenue Bridge in Bay City, about others that MDOT has won, because these have been spaced out and it's easy to forget about them. So, Niles, thank you for taking time to be here. Yeah, thank, you. And could you just kind of run through the $260 million in grants that MDOT has won so far?Niles Annelin:
Yeah, so since the beginning of the IIJA we've actually been very successful in receiving grants that we've been applying for since 2001. As you alluded to, we've been awarded almost $267 million in grants. These grants range from rail grants to help enhance Michigan's rural economy, work zone safety grants to intercorporate emerging technology into work zones to help protect our people working on the projects. We also have received a considerable grant for improvements to the Detroit New Center Intermodal Facility, not to mention the Lafayette Bridge. But one of our other biggest grants that we've received is the I-375 Improvement and Community Reconstruction Project. That was funded at almost $105 million, which goes a long way towards getting us towards our goals there. We were also very happy to receive a Reconnecting Community Grants which is focused on bridging I- 696 in Oak Park. This is an opportunity to rebuild or retrofit a pedestrian plaza connecting two communities in the Oak Park area. In addition to that, we've also been receiving another rail related grant, referred to as the Michigan Accelerated Rail Bridge Construction Project, to again help make improvements to rail facilities across the state. That's just kind of the high level list of some of the real interesting grants that we've received. The process for getting these grants has been a steep learning curve since the passage of the new legislation, but I think we're making good headway.Jeff Cranson:
Let's talk about that process and what have you learned along the way. The money was kind of thrown out there and you guys were told okay, there's this criteria and go ahead, DOTs, make your applications. We've been through a lot of different federal programs over the years with federal grants and had more success other years than others, obviously, but this one seems to have really struck at a right time.Niles Annelin:
Yeah, yeah, so you're right. There was a lot to unravel and try to understand in a very short amount of time on how to best be effective with these discretionary grant programs that have come out of the new funding bill. But what we've learned is it all really begins with the NOFO, or what is commonly referred to as the NOFO, which is the Notice of Funding Opportunity. This really is the blueprint and instructions for how to put together successful grant applications crucial, important, that any entity that is looking to submit an application to one of these programs really review and carefully understand the intent of the program and the criteria that the federal government is looking for specifically for these grant opportunities. So at MDOT our grants coordinator and others will again closely review those NOFOs, summarize it, share it with our regions or other business areas that we determined might be eligible or have projects that would be eligible for the various grant opportunities. And then ask them to work with us to put together a list of potential projects. We just kind of do a quick little assessment based on our understanding of the grant opportunity and then leave it to our executive team. So once a list of potential projects is approved by executive, our executive team, that's when the real work begins. That's when the project managers and grant coordinators really dig in and again use that NOFO or funding opportunity as the guide for developing a successful application which, as we previously mentioned, we've had several big successes in this program.Jeff Cranson:
I think there's discussion of how much money is available or could come in Michigan's way between when this all started in 2022 and 2026. So I mean, do you feel like there's still a lot that we can look forward to in terms of other grant possibilities? I think they talked about Michigan getting upwards of $11 billion between those years that I talked about.Niles Annelin:
So yeah, I think there's still a great opportunity. Now that we generally know what the various grant opportunities are, we're starting to be proactive and look at future years and future projects that we have coming down the pipeline and are really trying to identify looking into the future, looking into 2023, looking into 2024, what projects might be eligible for these grant opportunities. Again, it's a way to be more proactive in selecting projects that we think are good candidates for this federal funding.Jeff Cranson:
And then there's the whole issue of setting expectations, right that we've been in a decades long funding crisis. We're finding out recently that our grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers for roads has improved very slightly, and that's because of $3.5 billion in rebuilding Michigan money that we're able to pour into the state system. That isn't going to solve the problem long term in either of these grants, right? So you guys in your division of policy are still looking at how can we manage what we're doing, and is that a concern of yours? I guess that people are going to think these grants are going to help us get out of the hole we're in.Niles Annelin:
Yeah, and that's correct, because often we say we have success in receiving funding for these grants, but it's often not the total project cost. So that is another hurdle that we're definitely trying to try to manage on MDOT's end. On our end is, you know, okay so we receive 70% of the cost for a project? Do we have the remaining 30%? And when we apply for these projects we always make sure we do. But it does kind of create a strain again, not knowing which projects will be funded at which point. There's a lot of juggling and coordination that needs to be done to make sure that if we get an award we can continue to use it. But again, as you said, it's not going to solve all our problems. It's really just helping us make small steps towards fixing our infrastructure.Jeff Cranson:
Is there anything more you want to say about the criteria and how you go through it and make those decisions?Niles Annelin:
Yeah, so one of the main and, I think, exciting parts of the IIJA was an increased focus on some new criteria that wasn't always a focus of transportation projects in the past. Obviously, safety is still the primary selection criteria, but a lot of these new programs are coming forward with requests that we focus on highlighting the benefits of any grant application to the benefits of being resilient to climate change, protecting the environment, having an equity focus and looking towards multimodal opportunities. And, again, making sure that the economics of the projects make sense, how it impacts freight, how it does, how it helps job creation and continued economic opportunity for the state of Michigan. And they also want us to look for areas of innovation. So again, it's an exciting direction and it's interesting to look at projects and try to figure out how best we can select projects to meet those criteria.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, and it's exciting and you're learning a lot along the way, but at the same time, you feel like the proverbial fire hose right. So well, thanks, Niles. Is there anything else you want to add about what you're doing in terms of applying for these grants and making sure you check the boxes.Niles Annelin:
Yeah, no, I would just highlight that there's a lot of opportunity out there and we are doing everything we can to take advantage of that opportunity and make sure that we don't miss a chance to receive some of these federal funds. It is a great opportunity for us to help bolster our system.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, it was very good. Okay, thank you, Niles.Niles Annelin:
All right, thank you.Jeff Cranson:
So I want to thank my guests again today Niles Annelin, who you just heard from MDOT's Bureau of Planning, talking about the IIJA grants and what the opportunities are there, and then earlier Beckie Curtis, who's the director of the Bureau of Bridges and Structures at MDOT, talked about the one specific grant, a big $173 million for the Lafayette Avenue Bridge. Like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who helped make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.