Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.
Cranson: Welcome again to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. This is the last edition of 2021, and I wanted to highlight a video that MDOT's production team put together running down all of the projects and accomplishments in 2021.
Narrator: 2021 saw a record-breaking investment in infrastructure by the Michigan Department of Transportation. The Rebuilding Michigan bond plan injected an additional billion dollars in funding during the construction season, keeping MDOT and our partners busy. From Detroit to the southwest corner of the state all the way up to Lake Superior, Michigan’s most traveled highways and some important tourist routes received extra attention.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer: It's really pretty amazing when you think about the incredible work that MDOT is doing in the midst of the pandemic. Utilizing the bonding proceeds from the work that we did last year, and this is the work that we're getting done. This increases quality of life, it increases return on our investment, and this is why addressing infrastructure right now in this way is so important.
Cranson: We'll talk more about that with the director of the department, Paul Ajegba, who is here to talk about some of the successes and one of the things he's looking forward to in 2022. So, director, thanks for taking time to do this.
Director Paul Ajegba: Thank you, Jeff. Good morning and thanks for having me.
Cranson: So, broadly before we get into any specifics, you know, how would you kind of sum up 2021 for the department and overcoming challenges and what you're proudest of?
Director Ajegba: Oh, I think this was a historic year for the department and the state as a whole. As you know, they gave us $3.5 billion dollars in January 2020 and asked us to get out there and fix our roads and bridges. And I think true to our culture, we met that challenge. And we're continuing to meet the challenge because, you know, the money is still coming in and the projects are getting out there. The beauty of this is that the public is beginning to feel the effect of all the work that's been put out there, and that to me is a testament to all the hard work the folks at MDOT put in to make this a success.
Cranson: And the idea behind the governor's Rebuilding Michigan program, the $3.5 billion dollars in bonds that fund a number of projects and also make possible to move forward some other projects on other roads, was to put the money where people actually drive. So, we saw some major work on some of the most busy traveled and visibly traveled roads in the state with M-59 in Macomb County, a major commercial corridor and commuter corridor. There’s ongoing work on I-275 in Wayne County, of course. Then something that's close to home for you because when you were region engineer in Jackson you were thinking even then about how to improve that I-94 corridor and the interchange with US-127. What do you think all of those mean going forward to the travelers?
Director Ajegba: Well, first, I would say for us as MDOT engineers, we've always been really worried about the fixes we've been doing on our freeways, on our roadways, quite frankly, because we didn't have the resources, so we're doing a lot of bandage work. The I-275 project you mentioned is a classic example. That was just going to be a three-hour fix meaning, you know, you just kind of take a few layers off, you know, do some detailed seven and eighths, which means fixing some of the underlying issue and then put it back. And that would only buy you about 10 years of repair, but when the governor's money came in, we used and took advantage of that and put a break on that project and reimagined that project. So, that project went from a $50-million-dollar job to a $275-million-dollar job. So, in that regard, I think this is money well spent because we don't have to be in that corridor for another 30 years. It cuts down on maintenance cost, you know, with people going out there trying to fix potholes and all that. So, that to me is the underlying success of this $3.5-billion-dollar money that that we're using because we are doing the right fixes that will give us a long-lasting pavement.
Cranson: I think that's a really good point because when the governor and others talk about fixing them right the first time, and I think that some people take that as some kind of a shot at MDOT or the contractors. And what they're saying is you didn't have the money to do anything, you know, with sound asset management principles, all money you had was to do those kinds of fixes, and with the right kind of investment, you can do something long-term.
Director Ajegba: Exactly, and I think we've proven that given the opportunity that we can do this. My hope is that as we come out of this, you know, spending period—I think it's supposed to last until 2024—that we can go to the public and the legislatures and show them the results, right? We can say, “Listen, this is what we can do if you fund transportation infrastructure appropriately. This is the results of what your money will do.” And I’m looking forward to that time when we can really have that debate.
Cranson: You are ever the optimist. You hope that you can say, “Look at our results, and now it's time to invest more.” That's your fervent hope.
Director Ajegba: I'm a results-oriented person, and I’ve got my fingers crossed on that.
Cranson: Well, let's talk a little bit about some of the other things. Obviously, we we're still in the midst of a pandemic. You reached a very innovative agreement early on with the Contractors Association for how to move projects forward in 2020, and that continued in 2021. Do you feel like, you know, the pandemic caused us some slowdowns or delayed projects at all?
Director Ajegba: Well, I think, again, at the beginning of a conversation I said it was a historic year, and I truly mean that in the sense that it wasn't just MDOT. It was MDOT, the contractors, the union. Everybody came together at the beginning of the pandemic and said, “Okay.” Well, you know, the initial thought was let's stop all work, and then we'll see how things go. But I think we were able to reach an agreement that says, “Okay, contractor, we're not going to shut you down.” Because there were, you know, strong opinions on both sides. There's some that wanted to shut down. There’s some that didn't, and I thought this was a great compromise. Okay, we're not going to shut you down. However, if you choose to shut down because of safety reasons we will not penalize you. And I think that to me was probably the untold story of this whole pandemic as far as how MDOT was able to move forward last year and obviously, this year. It helped us continue the momentum that the governor put out there with the money and say, “Go out there and get some work done.” Obviously, when she gave us the money, we didn't know the pandemic was going to happen. She gave us the money in January, and the pandemic happened in March. But I think we've been able to navigate this thing in a proper way that we didn't put lives at risk, and, you know, we still got the job done.
Cranson: I’m glad you mentioned, you know, the labor unions too because the Operating Engineers have been, you know, working really hard. They hosted the President back in the late summer at their training facility in Howell to make the point that, you know, one of the things we're doing are these apprenticeships and this ongoing training to develop the workforce. That's a challenge for everybody right now. What do you think about that going forward with more investment planned in 2022?
Director Ajegba: Well, I mean, I think they are critical partnership in this endeavor, right? As you're beginning to spend state money and money coming from federal, there's a lot of emphasis and focus on fixing our roads and bridges and all our infrastructure for that matter, and you're going to need labor to be part of the conversation because you can't get all this work done without labor being at the table. So, I think, again, the partnership between MDOT, MITA and the labor union has been a great partnership, and I hope will continue along that path for the good of the state.
Cranson: So, talk a little bit about, you know, work zone safety with the ramped-up work and with what we know are more people speeding. We talked on the podcast last week with some Michigan State University experts about the trends across the country and the state. People started driving a lot faster during the pandemic, and they continued doing that. It’s at a time when we're trying to do more road work, and we're putting more road workers out there. We've had some horrific crashes, and I know you take that very personally. I know that the people in construction and work zone safety at MDOT do. What do you think about that going forward?
Director Ajegba: Again, it all starts with good partnership, right? The partnership that we have with MITA right now where we came together and from the safety task force is headed on the MDOT side by Tony Kratofil and on the MITA side by Mike Mallow. I think that's a good way to try to tackle this issue because it's not just an MDOT issue. It's mostly—quite frankly, the MITA members are just as concerned as we are because it's their workers out there. If you can't keep them safe out there, we're going to be losing more people in the industry, right? So, that partnership I think is really moving things forward and looking at innovative ways to keep drivers engaged in construction zones so that it's a safe zone. There are a lot of initiatives across the country that they're looking at that they're trying to bring to Michigan. And I think also with Michigan State Police being a partner in this, I’m very optimistic that we can get to a place where we can present this to our legislators and chip away at some of the reckless driving in our work zones and distracted driving and all that that's causing a lot of these crashes. So, yeah, I think that what we're doing is the right way to go.
Cranson: We've got lawmakers working on initiatives, you know, bills that would require more signage, maybe flashing signs, as you enter work zones and where that's appropriate, where that can work. There's talk about automated enforcement in work zones. There are a lot of things that we're looking at. So, yeah, I think we're all hopeful that we can see some innovations that can maybe cut down on some of those work zone crashes.
Stick around. There's more to come right after this short message.
Narrator: [Car honking] 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.
Cranson: There are a couple other things from the past year that count as accomplishments. You were with the governor to make a major announcement at the Mackinac Policy Conference about EV charging and MDOT maybe looking at some innovative things like conductive charging. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Director Ajegba: Oh, absolutely. Again, this is part of some of the innovative things that the governor is driving MDOT and EGLE and Office of Future Mobility and Electrification to look at creative ways to stay in the forefront of a lot of these technologies. We in Michigan have the luxury of having all the major OEMs here in the state. So, we have to be in lockstep with them as best we can to make sure that as they put these vehicles out there, we have the infrastructure to support that vehicle. So, with the charging when we put out the RFP, we've got we had some good responses. I believe we've picked a team but obviously that has not been announced yet. But that this to me is another example of Michigan taking that major step forward to say, “Yes, we're going to be at the forefront of this issue.” It’s just like the CAV. Michigan was—I mean, we were way ahead of a lot of states at the beginning of, you know, connected autonomous vehicles, and I think that the same thing's going on now with electric vehicles.
Cranson: Yeah, very much. Those things dovetail very nicely. And this idea of checking the feasibility of actually charging your car while you move down the road—
Director Ajegba: Mm-hmm.
Cranson: That's pretty incredible, and that would go a long way toward, you know, people's biggest fear, which is, you know, that range anxiety.
Director Ajegba: Exactly.
Cranson: So, we had some major flooding again in the freeways in Metro Detroit. It was some, you know, perhaps 500-year, if not 1,000-year storms, just major deluges. Scientists tell us we can expect more of that as the climate changes and as the as the Earth warms. All we can do is try to mitigate it. We can't control the weather, obviously. And everybody focuses on pump stations, and obviously, we need all of our pumps to be working, but we also need a place for the water to go. And I think a lot of times people miss that point that it doesn't matter. It’s just like your basement. You could have the best sump pump in the world, but if the water just keeps coming back in it doesn't do any good. What's your feeling, high level, about what we can do long term?
Director Ajegba: Well, again, I’m not a scientist, but I think we can all agree that there's something happening in that in our environment, right? We had a hundred-year flood and 500-year flood within a month or two of each other. Our system is not designed to handle all that water at the same time. Yeah, we had the pump stations there that had power failure, and that, you know, complicated things more. However, I think the short term is to look at putting permanent generators at each of these pump stations, and we're working on that right now. We've put some money aside to start working on that, but I think long term we have to look at changing our design standards. For instance, four-inch outlet pipes are not big enough anymore for that kind of rain coming in at such a short period of time like that. You need bigger outlet pipes to pump that water out, right? We need to look at different ways of redesigning our drainage system, you know, like what we're doing on I-75 segment three. We’re putting in a big tunnel under the freeway. I’m not saying putting a tunnel under all the freeways is the best way to go. Long term, those are billions and billions of dollars, but in the short term, what can we do to make sure that, you know, we are at least addressing some of the most basic issue of flooding? I think the generators at this pump stations and perhaps looking at changing our outlet pipes will be the most basic thing we can do right away.
Cranson: Yeah, backup power would go a long way. Can you remind people, I guess just briefly, why the freeways in a place like Detroit and other big cities were built in a depressed manner in the first place?
Director Ajegba: Well, again, historically, it's more for space management then, right? That's a big part of it. Also, if you look at it it's not just Detroit. Even in Flint you have I-475, I-69 as some freeways out there that are depressed. I believe over the years the pump stations have been able to accommodate. I mean, it’s like having a sump pump in your basement, as you said. When it rains, the sump pump comes on and it pumps the water out. That worked for a long time, but I think we're getting to a point now where we probably have to reimagine how we, you know, take care of water on our freeways moving forward.
Cranson: Yeah, so looking forward to 2022, you know, what are you looking at in terms of big projects that you hope to be out celebrating?
Director Ajegba: Well, I think of all the projects that are going on, I-94 in Jackson is—I can't thank the Jackson Region folks enough for all the hard work that's going on out there. I mean, you drive through there now and it's like night and day from five years ago, from three years ago, right?
Director Ajegba: Because all that work is going on in that corridor. I'm hoping by, you know, the end of next year we can celebrate. That's such a huge accomplishment. And we have projects all over the state that have, you know, been need of repair for a long time. And again, with the Rebuilding Michigan money that the governor gave us we were able to do big projects like that. And I hope as we put out more projects, we can celebrate the successes as well.
Cranson: Yeah, another section of I-196 west of Grand Rapids is going to be wrapped up, I-496 through downtown Lansing and stretches of I-69 almost all the way from the Indiana border to Flint are being—
Director Ajegba: Exactly. Yeah, I-69 corridor around that part of the Charlotte area. Yes, you're absolutely right. If you remember three years ago, you could barely drive that without losing a tire. So, being able to finish a project like that next year I think it's something that we will celebrate.
Cranson: Yeah, well thanks, director. I appreciate you helping us to put a spotlight on our video, which I think is really good. We hear from a number of local officials and some business leaders across the state who are appreciative of the work. This helps highlight that, so thank you again for taking time to talk with us.
Director Ajegba: Thank you, Jeff, and thank you to you and your team for all you do. Thank you.
Cranson: All right. Thank you. Have a good holiday.
Director Ajegba: All right. You too.
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.