Talking Michigan Transportation

$10 million federal grant will enhance connectivity in Detroit, with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and MDOT project manager Jon Loree

November 29, 2021 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 3 Episode 83
Talking Michigan Transportation
$10 million federal grant will enhance connectivity in Detroit, with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and MDOT project manager Jon Loree
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, conversations with senior Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) project manager Jonathan Loree and Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist about some key MDOT projects aimed at enhancing connections for travelers in the city of Detroit. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced on Nov. 22 $1 billion in Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grants, including a grant for the long-planned intermodal facility in the New Center area of Detroit. This would allow for development of new passenger rail and intercity bus facilities in Detroit to accommodate growing ridership projections. 

The news comes as MDOT continues work on some other key connectivity initiatives in Detroit: 

·         A conversion of the I-375 freeway to an urban boulevard with safe access for pedestrians and cyclists; and

·         A study to transform Michigan Avenue from I-96 through the historic Corktown neighborhood to Campus Martius Park downtown and allow safer access for other users as well as economic development. 

Loree explains the projects and his work with City of Detroit officials, business owners and residents.

In a second segment, Lt. Gov. Gilchrist talks about growing up in Detroit and how rethinking transportation is aiding Detroit’s comeback. As discussed on a previous podcast, he talks about the social and environmental justice components of the I-375 project and how the same principles apply to developing the intermodal facility and rethinking Michigan Avenue.


Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: This week, in the wake of news from the federal government that Michigan is receiving a $10 million grant to build an intermodal facility, we will be focusing on all things related to connectedness and what MDOT is doing in the city of Detroit to respond to the community's priorities for transportation. First, I’ll be speaking with Jonathan Loree, the senior project manager at MDOT involved in much of this work. Then later I’ll speak with Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, a resident of Detroit and a champion of increasing accessibility and mobility options for everyone. So, first up is Jonathan. Thank you for joining the podcast.

Jonathan Loree: Thanks for having me, Jeff.

Cranson: So, just talk in general I guess about, you know, your background and whether you saw yourself being another civil engineer involved in building, designing, thinking about highways and roads and traditional vehicles and what you're doing really instead of that.

Loree: Yeah, it certainly is interesting. I've been with the department for 17 years now, all of them in the city of Detroit. And I’ve really enjoyed my work down there. I’ve had the ability to work in many different areas, starting out in design and road scoping and working on construction. And now I’m actually finding myself landing more of a planning role, which I never thought I would end up in. But it's a very exciting time to be in this role, and there's lots of opportunities presented themselves within the city. I think that the current administration for the city planning department is much more forward thinking. I think MDOT is also really looking at being more multimodal moving forward. And there's lots of new tools that allow us to be more flexible and implement some of these things on these really transformative projects.

Cranson: And so, the news peg right now, just before Thanksgiving, or the week before Thanksgiving, the federal government announced, like, a billion dollars in what are called RAISE grants. And RAISE stands for Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity. And one of those was a $10 million dollar award for the intermodal facility long talked about in New Center north of downtown Detroit. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that fits into, you know, the goals and objectives both for the city and for MDOT in the city of Detroit?

Loree: Yeah, really, it's about looking beyond transportation being just the automobile and, you know, leveraging the facilities and infrastructure to allow people to walk, bike, use transit to move around the city. And the intermodal facility really connecting Amtrak inner city bus to the QLINE kind of really opens up the city and the region to Chicago and all those markets beyond where they can essentially hop on the Amtrak, come down in the news center, hop on the QLINE get downtown, visit Midtown. You have a lot of cultural resources in there, museums. It's a wonderful place to come and visit, and it really just kind of opens up those opportunities and also for the people every day moving around in the city.

Cranson: Yeah, and if you look at, you know, where that is in New Center, it's reasonably close to Henry Ford Health Systems and close to Wayne State University. Again, it’s not far from downtown and really a lot of important places there. So, I think that I think that it could be very helpful. Do you think that reflects, you know, as we talked about earlier, what younger generations are saying are their values and what they want in terms of transportation and alternatives?

Loree: Yeah, I think so. I think it's, again, you know, not that the automobile is going away but there are certain expenses and costs and sacrifices that have to be made to use a vehicle to travel all around, to use a personal automobile to travel all around. And to have these options, you know, especially now when you look at how things have changed with cell phones and Wi-Fi  and that connectivity, is that time that's spent using transit or, let's say, an autonomous vehicle can actually be really productive time and not be, you know, stuck behind the wheel watching the car in front of you and making sure that you're following all the rules. I think it can also be a safer mode in that respect, you know, moving masses of people instead of having individual cars everywhere.

Cranson: And so, what we're looking at is estimated $36 million to $45 million dollars total for that facility in the hope that if government can put together the funds to build this, there'll be some private development that goes with that and some opportunities for other amenities that would be beneficial to the users. If we can do that and, you know, the director of the department is confident and says it's a real priority. I know it's a priority of the governor and the administration that we can find that money and maybe have a groundbreaking sometime next year. That would be really cool. Talk a little bit about I-375 and the rethinking of that corridor. You're heavily involved in that project too, and that also relates to connectivity, or I guess in this case, re-establishing some connections.

Loree: Yeah, when that freeway opened in 1964 it, you know, has a number of bridges that that cross it, but really in the name of urban renewal destroyed, you know, some of the surrounding neighborhoods. But it also destroyed and made it much more difficult for those connections to occur between the central business district and in the surrounding neighborhoods. And it’s not only just the freeway itself, it's a rather short stint of about a mile, but the interchange to the north as well is a big a big hindrance to getting around and between some major destinations and growing neighborhoods of Brush Park, Eastern Market you've got the Stadium District, and then you have the existing Lafayette Park neighborhoods. It's really exciting to be able to take kind of an antiquated freeway, in this case, and look at how that space can be repurposed. And look at how it can not only serve the automobile but can serve robust bike and pedestrian and walking facilities and open up all these connections that have been gone, you know, for the last 60 years, connecting down to the riverfront up into Brush Park, you know, connecting the stadiums to Eastern Market in a much more pedestrian and bike-oriented way. And one of the exciting things about this one is even accomplishing all of that and being able to have excess property as well that can be redeveloped and help the city grow is another really exciting piece of it.

Cranson: Yeah, it's very exciting. And, you know, you and I have talked about this a lot, and we can't undo the wrongs of, you know, 60 years ago. And in fairness to the designers and engineers then, that's what was going on in a lot of cities across the country, and we know things now that they didn't know then. But it's important to acknowledge, I guess, the mistakes that were made and see what we can do going forward. And that's what that project is all about, and that kind of project is a real high priority for the Biden administration and for USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg. So, I think we're all hopeful that there'll be some money that comes out of the infrastructure bill that can help move that forward, and that would be great. Talk a little bit about something else that you're involved in—you're involved in a lot—the Planning and Environmental Linkages study for Michigan Avenue from I-96 to Campus Martius and, you know, what the ultimate goals are there.

Loree: Yeah, that one's a really exciting project. There's a lot of changes going on in that side of the city in Corktown area with Ford Motor Company moving into the old previously abandoned Michigan Central Station. And what they're bringing in is employees and a basis dedicated to electric and autonomous vehicles to that research and implementation. So, Ford is really looking at that area as being a mobility hub and testing ground for them, which is exciting. And it also is part of a larger study effort for Cavnue which is a non-profit corporation looking to create a connected vehicle corridor between Ann Arbor and Detroit. So, we have a couple major players in there looking at how, really, Michigan Avenue can be looked at as a roadway for the future and how it can operate in that way. So, the vision that we're moving forward with, and it's really exciting, is of course to really activate the sidewalk by reducing some of the vehicular lanes in this area, and the volumes allow us to do this without major impact. We can put a dedicated transit and  autonomous vehicle lane in the middle of the corridor, really kind of following a lot of the bus rapid transit type geometries and best practices there, and have different stations throughout and be able to leverage that, but also to expand the sidewalks, activate that space for sidewalk cafes and businesses and have an upgrade at grade bicycle facility that can also be used for different mobility options, say scooters or bikes or whatever else is going to going to come into play. They're actually operating some Kiwibots right now, which are little robotic wheeled, I guess, pods that can go around and can deliver food and different things. And they're programmed to be able to operate within that space within the sidewalk right now, but I think to really provide some dedicated space gives those developers of those technologies and those types of mobility options to be able to explore, try new technologies, and really hone in on and get the maximum benefit out of that type of facility. So, it’s one that's really exciting. It's taken some time and effort, like all of these projects that are transformative, you know, working with the stakeholders to get them to understand, you know, what we're trying to accomplish and what those benefits can be. And it's one that I think, really, the community is quite excited about right now, similar to I-375 and these other projects.

Cranson: So, would those bike lanes or, you know, scooter lanes be buffered? Is that the kind of thing you're talking about?

Loree: They'll be up on sidewalk level. So, there'll be the curb, there'll be a small buffer, and then there'll be the bike lane and then there'll be the sidewalk. So, there is some space to work with, but they will be more or less kind of a part of the sidewalk infrastructure.

Cranson: So, I think about myself as a little kid driving to Tiger games, or going to Tiger games, with my family and what Michigan Avenue was like then and the incredible capacity, and, you know, the lanes are there. And now, you know, people were worried about what would happen to that corridor when its anchor, Tiger stadium, was gone. And I don't think even the most optimistic envisioned Corktown becoming what it is with so many people, you know, homesteading and buying condos there and, you know, bars and restaurants and an entertainment district already. So, I think it really is an exciting time to be doing what you're doing and helping to rethink that. What kinds of things do you hear from the people that are living and invested in the neighborhood as this goes forward?

Loree: Yeah, really, you know, we did a lot of outreach early on to understand how people use Michigan Avenue and what they would like to see. And it has gone through a lot of changes with adding in some buffered bike lanes in the corridor in the last 10 years, but none of them have really been solidified within the roadway. So, you know, at one point, Michigan Avenue and Woodward and a lot of these trunk lines, they were essentially—this corridor was 9, 10-foot travel lanes of traffic. And it's very uncomfortable, as a pedestrian, to walk up and down and to really try to cross the roadway. It's a very vehicle-oriented roadway with the way the way it's been laid out. So, you know, we hear that people want mid-block crossings. They want to feel safer, so that is part of the design, really, is making sure that we afford, you know, ample walk times for people to cross the corridor. But it's also about, you know, shortening those crossing distances with curb extensions, and we have some lane reductions and then providing those mid-block opportunities. And not only does that provide additional pedestrian crossings and opportunities but it also really serves to calm the vehicular traffic that goes through there. So, that was really one of the major things we heard was, you know, when you have that many lanes, it really kind of generates a propensity for people to drive faster, and you get you get faster speeds through the corridor, and it becomes even less safe. So really, you know, a lot of what we heard was about, you know, how can we slow traffic down? We want people to be able to get to the businesses, but and we don't want people speeding through here and making it unsafe for families and for people crossing the roadway.

Cranson: I think that, you know, as acronyms go, and God knows transportation is deep in acronyms and can be really difficult to keep track of and just be kind of confusing, but the one for this particular study, Planning and Environmental Linkages, known as PEL, I think those are just great words for what this is all about and what you're doing. So, tie it all together for me, I guess. Someday, you'll be able to tell future generations that, you know, you've had a thumbprint on kind of remaking the city and its connectedness. How does that feel thinking about the intermodal facility and I-375 and Michigan Avenue?

Loree: You know, I guess I will just say, you know, coming off the Thanksgiving holiday, I feel blessed to be able to be a part of all these great projects. And, you know, it takes a lot of work to get them off the ground and developed to where they are and to get them into design and construction, but I think it's all well worth it. And it's really just an exciting time to be to be involved in these and to really, you know, have those tools going from, you know, what's been more dictated from the green book to having flexibility with NACTO and other things. And also having some more alignment, I think, really between local state and national levels in terms of, you know, how we effectively move people around. It's great to be able to revisit some of these previous roadways that really need to be kind of re-envisioned and reimagined and put a thumb print on it.

Cranson: Well said. And, you know, I think that patience is really the greatest thing here, and you've got it. And that's what it takes to stay with all these things and juggle them and tie them together, so I certainly appreciate the work you're doing. So, thank you for taking time to talk today.

Loree: Thanks again for having me, Jeff.

Cranson: Okay, and I’ll be back in a minute with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist who lives very near that Michigan Avenue corridor we were talking about and has been a great champion of multimodal uses. And we'll talk about the RAISE grant and the other things that John discussed and outlined for us. We'll be right back. Stay tuned.


Narrator: The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person or other object, it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error, we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads safely.

Cranson: As promised, I'm back with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist who is a repeat visitor to the podcast. And I always appreciate him taking time. Thank you very much, sir.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist: Jeff, thank you for having me. And, as always, I want to thank all the professionals and MDOT for their service to the state of Michigan.

Cranson: We appreciate that. So, I talked earlier with John Loree who is a project manager for a number of initiatives that we have going on related to connectivity, the I-375 project, the PEL study for Michigan Avenue from Corktown down to Campus Martius. And he's also been involved in the intermodal facility, which is the news peg here because we got, you know, a $10 million dollar grant from the federal government to move that forward. And we're really hopeful that next year we'll put together the rest of the money and maybe have a groundbreaking down there. So, just from your perspective as a multi-modal user, a champion of different modes, talk about what all this means to you.

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: Well, Jeff, I think it's really important because when we think about people using multiple modes of transportation, what we're really talking about is having the flexibility and responsiveness in our system for people to be able to use whatever methods make sense for them to get from point A to point B to point C, to get to their job, to get to their kids, to get to their educational experiences, or the doctor, or the grocery store, or to entertainment, to have fun, to see family and friends. So, a system is really healthy and rich when we offer a wide array of services so people can use whatever makes sense, whatever that context may be, for them. And this is something I experienced very deeply, to your point, as a Detroiter with my wife and then my, you know, very young babies using multiple modes of transportation when we did not have a private car that we owned or leased. So, I was using the bus, riding bikes, taking, you know, short-term rental cars like zip cars, using Ubers, walking. We really used everything that was available to us to have a real and rich city experience. And by MDOT, you know, seeking these types of funds and support and the state of Michigan investing in these solutions for people in different communities, that's really going to lead to a higher quality of life and a richer living experience for people in all of our communities, and I’m really excited to bring that to fruition.

Cranson: So, as your kids grow up not too far from that Michigan corridor, they'll absolutely benefit from some of the things that they're doing, whether it's bike lanes, scooter lanes or better pedestrian access, all those things. It can be very personal for you.

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: Like literally I’m looking out of my window right now onto Michigan Avenue from Corktown toward downtown. [Laughing] So, this is very specifically a corridor that I’m very familiar with that I walked with my children and my wife with just on Saturday night, two nights ago. So, this is a well-worn path for our family and for a lot of families here in the west side of Detroit.

Cranson: As, you know, as we want to do as a society to simplify things, they so often get framed as an either or. So, for years, this whole thing with multimodal access, especially in the Motor City, has been framed as either or like somehow that's contrary to the automobile industry, which is obviously still very important to our state and very important to our economy. Do you get that question? Do you wrestle with how to frame that?

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: You know, I do get it a lot, and I think about it. And look, as a kid, my mother was an accountant at General Motors for 32 years, and everybody else in my family worked in the Big Three. I see these companies as transportation companies, and that's how they see themselves with finding and delivering transportation solutions for people to be able to be their best selves by getting where they need to go and what needs to get there. So, from my perspective, I believe, however, that all of our infrastructure, whether it's our streets or anything else that we build, they're for people. So, making sure that people have choices about how they interact and engage with that infrastructure is really what we're here for. So, I don't think this is a mutually exclusive either-or, zero-sum proposition. Having choices is what matters because those choices allow, again, our infrastructure solutions to be responsive to whatever people need, when they need it, how they need it, in a way that makes sense for them, and that's what we need to optimize for.

Cranson: So, we've talked about this before, but it relates to this topic because it's all about connectivity and the other initiatives, so we know that the I-375 conversion is moving forward. It has lots of support from you and Governor Whitmer and Mayor Duggan and the federal government. Certainly, the Biden administration and Secretary Buttigieg have said that's the kind of project, you know, they want to look at. So, talk a little bit more about that and how you see that fitting into the bigger picture of really a new Detroit from a transportation perspective.

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: You know, I-375 is going to be important for two big reasons. One is that it gives us an opportunity to right a wrong from the past, and it gives us an opportunity to set our community on a path towards a better, connected, and more prosperous future. And the inclusive design process that's going to go into what that new surface and infrastructure looks like I’m very excited about as someone who has childhood roots in the neighborhood that was broken up by that freeway when it was constructed. So, I think the community is really looking forward to finding a way to be better connected. I think our communities are stronger when they're better connected. I think they're more vibrant when they're better connected, and when people can see where they can go, literally, when people can see that there are not barriers that stand between people and goods, services, ideas, relationships. And connecting I-375 and that space in this way will really, I think, unlock a new generation of opportunities of a potential wealth creation, of business development, of public spaces that I think is going to help that near the east side of Detroit, which is near and dear to my heart because it’s where I grew up in the beginning of my childhood. It's going to make it be an amazing and vibrant place.

Cranson: So, did you dream when you joined the ticket in 2018 and pursued this lieutenant governor gig that you would be so knee-deep in transportation and talking about it really at a crucial time for the city of Detroit and really the whole state?

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: You know, I didn't know that it would be on this scale or to this degree, but I’m so proud to be here in this moment. And I think I’ve shared on this podcast before, you know, I’ve had an evolution, personally, as becoming a multi-modal transportation advocate. Look, I grew up in Detroit and the suburbs, and my dad told me that if I kept my grades up, back when I was like eight years old, if I kept my grades up, he'd help me get a car when I was 16. And that happened and that was my pride and joy and my identity, my ‘98 Grand Am that I had as a 16-year-old. And I think to go along the journey having lived in other parts of the country where I saw what it meant to have robust public transit and transportation options that were available, that were convenient, that were affordable, that were reliable and experiencing that and being able to have a vision for delivering that for people in Michigan and in Detroit. I’m proud to be a public servant at this moment in history to make that happen.

Cranson: Was it during that time when you were riding the bus to Ann Arbor during your U of M years that the social justice imperative really came clear to you and how that fits into this?

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: You know, the inequities of lack of access to public transit and public transit in a way that is, again, convenient and useful for people to be able to get to work, or to get to school, or get to the doctor, or get to the grocery store, it's something unfortunate that I’ve seen in every market where I’ve used public transit. I’ve seen it on the west coast. I’ve seen it on the east coast. I’ve seen it in Detroit. And I think what that shows is that there must be an intention set. There must be a purpose with how we design these solutions to truly one that engages the people who actually will use the services in the design process so that they actually are responsive to their needs, and then making sure that we're fully funding and resourcing those solutions that they come up with. That is how we will achieve the justice that people deserve.

Cranson: So, what do you think about the concept of the intermodal facility and news center a few miles from downtown, but, you know, near Wayne State, near Henry Ford Health System, a couple of major institutions with people that will use all those things, the Qline, Amtrak. Are you excited about that prospect?

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: I think, again, this is going to be a hub for innovation when it comes to better connecting our communities and our people. I can't wait to see the connections and relationships that are built because we have this center of excellence, frankly, here in the heart of the city. I’m excited about what that means and what the professionals and innovators are going to be able to deliver for transit users and for people who are doing business in that part of the city. I think it's going to be a model hopefully that we can then replicate in other parts of the state.

Cranson: Okay. Well, that's really good. Anything else you want to say to tie this all together in terms of connectivity and, you know, what Detroit is going to look like when your kids are growing up and maybe when their kids are growing up?

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: Well, I just want to reiterate the point that, you know, all of the investments that we make in infrastructure, all the investment that we make in transportation, the investments in any systems that we build, this is about people. These are all inherently social enterprises because they are about people, connecting people, enabling people, positioning people and the goods and services and commodities and things that people need to be their best selves, to be healthy, to be productive, to be prosperous, to be connected. And we have to keep people at the center of how we make these choices and make these investments. And when we do, we can do everything except fail, and I’m really excited about what we're going to achieve.

Cranson: Yeah, that's very well said. Did you also want to add, “Go blue?”

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: Oh, all day, every day. We're going to be in the college football playoff and they know. I’m ready to see Georgia.

Cranson: Saturday was a big day. My son is a freshman there, and that was his first OSU game. And he's pretty excited about the whole thing.

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: May he never forget it.

Cranson: Yeah. Well, thanks a lot for doing this. As always, I appreciate the conversation.

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist: Thanks, Jeff. Take care, everyone.


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.