On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Nickolai Miotto, a member of Operating Engineers 324 working on the Gordie Howe International Bridge. Following his appearance, Andy Doctoroff, the point person on the project for the Michigan governor’s office, visits again to offer an update on the project’s progress.
Ahead of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2022 State of the State address next week, Miotto was featured in a video series produced to highlight components of the speech.
Miotto talks about how he made his way into the training program to become an equipment operator and what it means to be working on such an iconic project. In the video, he touts the importance of infrastructure investment to job creation and economic development and why he thinks it spells good things for the future of Michigan.
In the second segment, Doctoroff offers highlights on the project’s status, including significant work on the Michigan interchanges that will serve bridge users. He also marvels at the towers going up, which will eventually soar more than 700 feet into the sky, nearing the height of the Renaissance Center.
Doctoroff also talks about the robust engagement process to keep members of communities on both sides of the border engaged and up to date on developments.
The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority produced this virtual tour to illustrate progress.
Podcast photo: New Gordie Howe International Bridge tower being constructed.
Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.
Cranson: Today, I’ll be talking with two people about construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, a majestic structure that will link Michigan with Canada, our most important trading partner. First, Nick Miotto, a member of Operating Engineers 324 and a tradesman on the bridge, will talk about what it means to be part of this historic project. He was highlighted in a video prepared by Governor Whitmer’s office in preparation for next week's State of the State address. After that, we'll hear from Andy Doctoroff, who is the governor's point person on the bridge, overseeing all kinds of things related to the contract work and the partnership with Canada that's bringing this project to fruition. But first, Nick, thank you for taking time to do this.
Nick Miotto: Glad to be here.
Cranson: So, let's start by talking about your work on the bridge and your work as an Operating Engineer and what you do and how you trained and developed the skills.
Miotto: Well, about nine years ago, I joined the Operators. Throughout time, both experience in the field and time at our training center in Howell, I got my crane certifications for large, small hydraulic cranes. I have a CDL, and then just through various dirt equipment training programs, I learned around excavators, dozers, you know, payloaders, skid steers, things like that.
Cranson: So, Nick, what was the training to get to that point? I mean, you don't just walk off the street and start operating that kind of equipment. Can you talk about the process of, you know, learning those skills?
Miotto: Well, at our training center, we have all types of classes that we can sign up for. We have in the classroom type classes. We have programs based around OSHA programs like a 10-hour OSHA and a 30-hour OSHA. And then we also have, in the field, you know, for all aspects of the work, I mean, grading classes with the GPS dozer. I mean, they start right at the basic level from, like, basic dozer, advanced dozer, GPS dozer, and it’s the same thing with the excavators. The cranes are a pretty in-depth program that we have there, but we start with our basic crane class and then we go into, you know, crane one, two, you know, the advanced crane classes, crane rigging. And then we go through the national certification process that is also in our training center. For me, I walked in as a journeyman. You can come as an apprentice and then you take X amount of classes every winter as a journeyman. I was able, just in my time off and the winters, to sign up for classes as I needed them to advance my skills.
Cranson: Yeah, no, is it something that interested you before, or were you kind of surprised as you got into it?
Miotto: So, well, yeah, I was a truck driver. I drove gravel trains, so I was around all aspects of this work and that. We did salt for MDOT and asphalt and all those things, and I always saw the equipment. Actually, I got in the Operators, and I drove truck a little bit. As I saw it, man, I really want to get in that equipment. I just started taking the classes and getting the field experience that it took to get to where I am now.
Cranson: Excellent. So, talk about your work specifically on the Gordie Howe and the things that you said on that video, which was just a very authentic, sincere testimonial to the, you know, importance of the project and the vitality and what it means to commerce and to, you know, both the state of Michigan and to Canada.
Miotto: Well, when I came down here, the project had been going for maybe a year a little over a year. I got down here December 8 of 2020. I hired as an operator. I was running, you know, dirt equipment and cranes. Then throughout my time here, I wound up becoming a general foreman, which is a foreman over many aspects of the project. I have a lot to do with, like, the crane moves and the on-site trucking. I’m pretty well involved in everything from the office to the field now. It's a huge project. I guess it's hard to touch on all of it. Do you know what I mean? From the US bridge and the main span going across and the point of entry and then we've got the I-75 interchange. It's a big project, a lot of moving parts.
Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. Well, in that video you talk about the satisfaction, and obviously, you and your co-workers take a lot of pride in what you're doing there, but can you talk about what this one means, especially compared to other things you've worked on?
Miotto: I think that's the coolest thing about being a tradesman, or an operator, is you get to look back for generations on the things that you touched and the things that you built. And sometimes, you know, it's stuff you don't see, but on this one it'll be here, you know, for generations. I mean, I think this bridge has, like, 150-year life expectancy. So, I mean, generations will see the main bridge and the flyovers going onto the highway and the buildings and the POE, and you'll always know that you built that. I mean, and everybody else will know that they built that. I mean, it's an extra reward on top of the good living that you make doing these things.
Cranson: Yeah, I mean, you've left your thumb print on the skyline in Detroit.
Miotto: Yeah. Well, it's going to be the tallest structure in Detroit when it's done.
Cranson: Right. You're talking about towers that soar above the Ren Cen. That’s pretty tall.
Miotto: Right, right.
Cranson: So, you talk a little bit too about, you know, the good jobs of the future and what this helps, you know, fuel in terms of economic development. You talked to about what state government is doing with the infrastructure money and how, you know, you're excited about the prospects for more work, other bridges, obviously, and other road work. Can you expand on that a little as well?
Miotto: I just think that in Michigan, you know, we were such an industrial state, and we still are, but we want to bring those businesses back. One thing that I think that this is going to do is it's going to attract—a business doesn't want to come to Michigan and have bad roads, bad bridges, you know, having trouble getting their things into our state. So, I see that this money is going to help that a lot, and I see it bringing more jobs to Michigan than just the jobs it's going to create for construction. Obviously, it's going to create a lot of good jobs for construction, you know what I mean? Obviously, tradesmen and trades women make good money, so they, of course, go out and they spend that money, and that money outreaches a long way into the economy more than just us out here working. I don't see any negative in infrastructure spending. It's all positive in my eyes.
Cranson: Yeah, well said. In Michigan, what's related to international travel and our most important trading partner, which is Canada, and in west Michigan alone because of various agricultural products and furniture and other things, it's one in seven jobs are tied to international trade. Those numbers are similar in other parts of the state. So, I don't think you can overstate what you're saying that the direct jobs right now that are created for the actual construction are one thing, but it's going to keep paying dividends in the future. So, I think there's going to be work.
Miotto: And with this Gordie Howe, you know, back when I drove truck before I was in the Operators, I went into Canada a lot. And those trucking companies, they work by the load, and you sit at an international crossing. And if I’m not mistaken, I think this is the busiest border crossing in North America right here in Detroit. This new bridge will speed that up and, you know, that will open up a lot of commerce right there. You know what I mean? So, that's one thing too that I didn't touch on, by having an extra border crossing, you know, we'll have the Tunnel, the Ambassador and the Gordie Howe then.
Cranson: Well, yeah, freeway to freeway connection without a bunch of traffic lights on the Windsor side, that's huge for just-in-time delivery.
Miotto: Right, right. Yeah.
Cranson: So, yeah, I think you covered what I was hoping to talk about. I kind of wanted to put another spotlight on the video and capture the excitement that you expressed. I think it was just very, you know, you came off as very sincere and very authentic, and it's helpful to the project.
Miotto: Yeah, when you get out and do this stuff, you just know it's for you. It just gets into your blood, you know, and you just want to be here every day. It's like you never actually go to work because you're happy to be there every day.
Cranson: That's what they say, right? If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.
Miotto: Yeah. Well, and plus being an operator, I mean, the benefits are great, and the wage is good. I mean, it's everything a guy like me could ask for.
Cranson: Yeah, well, that's great. Well, thank you, Nick. Good luck with the future of this thing. We hope to see it opening up, you know, the end of 2024. That's still the target, and we can't wait for that day. Good luck on the project.
Miotto: It was nice talking to you. Thank you.
Cranson: Stick around. There's more to come right after this short message.
Narrator: If you are enjoying today's Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast and would like to learn more about some of the exciting innovations going on at the Michigan Department of Transportation, check out the MDOT YouTube channel. For videos featuring project updates, safety initiatives, and program highlights, go to Youtube.com/MichiganDOT and subscribe.
Cranson: Okay, so, as promised, for the second segment today we're going to hear from our friend Andy Doctoroff, who is the point person for the governor's office overseeing construction and is involved in a lot of our discussions with our Canadian partners about keeping this project on track. Andy, thank you for taking time to do this.
Andy Doctoroff: Hey, it's my pleasure.
Cranson: So, we just heard from Nick Miotto, who is the operating engineer, you know, tradesmen, heavy equipment operator, who's featured in what I think is a very good video spotlighting the project and giving his personal testimonial about what it means to work on this. But we didn't touch much on where the project stands and what the progress has been over the last several months since you and I last talked. So, could you give us kind of an update?
Doctoroff: Yeah, there's been tons of progress. The progress on the project is thanks to the skilled trades workers that are working on the project every single day. We now have on each side of the border, two concrete piers that are shaped like inverted Y’s that are rising from the ground. Each one, one in Ontario and the other here in Michigan. is about 380 feet tall, I believe. Each one is on its way to being about 720 some feet, taller than the Marriott hotel at the Renaissance Center. So, that is the most physically obvious evidence of progress, but if you take a look at other components of the project, tons of work is being done on the ports of entry and creating the foundations for the buildings that will occupy the ports of entry. There's been tons of work on the roads, so, for example, just last month, we opened two new overpasses that are complete streets, really high-quality overpasses that will benefit the community—
Cranson: Talk about what that means, Andy. I mean, you've been in these transportation circles now for nine years, so you're starting to speak the jargon. But what does that mean to Joe Sixpack?
Doctoroff: It basically means that if you want to walk across an overpass, bike across the overpass, it's wide enough and constructed that will accommodate, you know, all of those modes of travel or transportation, and that's what complete streets are. It's, you know, something that basically is almost like a philosophy that streets are not just for automobiles; they're for everybody. And the project in terms of what's being built now and what will be built, you know, certainly buys into that philosophy.
Cranson: Yeah, you mean in that the bridge itself is going to accommodate non-motorized users.
Doctoroff: Yeah, as a former marathoner myself, I regularly ran across the Ambassador Bridge, and the view of the Detroit skyline that was just available to participants in that race, unless you're actually traveling in a car, was breathtaking. The fact that bikers from both countries and pedestrians can, any day, at any time, cross that bridge and then, you know, at sunrise and sunset see these incredible vistas and, you know, landscapes, I personally believe it's going to be a, you know, tourist attraction in earnest that's going to attract a lot of people.
Cranson: Yeah, that's with a passport and post pandemic.
Doctoroff: Yes, of course.
Cranson: But you're right, it will be beautiful. That's a really cool aspect to this. I would argue it’s probably under appreciated. There's been some media focusing on the multimodal aspects of it, but hopefully as we get close to opening there'll be more.
Doctoroff: Yeah, it's kind of been a niche subject so far because bikers care about it because they want to go from point A in one country to point B in another country, but just the day-to-day access of that view, I don't think it has settled in the consciousness of the public yet.
Cranson: Well, so what else do we need to know? I mean, you can see, you know, we had a group of lawmakers down there, I don't know, it's been a couple of months now I guess, actually maybe six weeks, and they were impressed. They got to see the construction. They got to see the, you know, visual, tangible things going on, but what's your takeaway when you're down there and you actually, you know, get out from behind your desk and get to see the work?
Doctoroff: Well, you know, on a personal level, it's the most rewarding thing that you can experience seeing the fruition of so many years of work and commitment, not just by myself, but by the incredible teams with which we work. It's real. It is a very busy construction site. We went up probably about 320 feet and just saw it being done. So, it's gone from being for so long something abstract to something extremely concrete right now, and that's very satisfying. And what's also very satisfying is that as the project continues, you know, it can go in one of two directions. People can have their interests that are misaligned, and communications and relationships begin to fray, or it can go in the other direction where interest continue to be aligned and relationships grow stronger and stronger. And I believe very strongly that one of the reasons why this project is going to succeed is because the participants in this project are working hand in glove, not just Michigan, Canada but also, BNA and all the other stakeholders in the community and elsewhere to make this project a reality. That goes back to, you know, I think the subject you mentioned, which was the legislative tour where there seemed to be great unanimity on the parts of the people who are on that tour, not speaking for anyone, that this project is an absolute good that addresses redundancy issues, addresses our commercial needs, provides state-of-the-art border crossing capacities, highway to highway connectivity. And, you know, it's awesome that this is coming to this area in the, you know, relatively near-term future, and we're going to have the opportunity to use this as a catalyst for all sorts of economic growth. And as this becomes a reality, which it is every day more and more, I think there's going to be more and more alignment and, you know, people being grateful that this project is happening.
Cranson: I think one of the things that really impressed those lawmakers, and we had lawmakers from all over the state they weren't just, you know, southeast Michigan delegation, was hearing some of the details about the community benefits and about the environmental work that's been done. It’s not just mitigation, but the environmental benefits that will pay dividends later, you know, all those things, the work with the community groups and the engagement and the ongoing, you know, constant willingness to be transparent and talk to everybody, answer all their questions. Can you talk about that a little?
Doctoroff: Well, it's my belief that one of the reasons why this project is so successful is because it has a true civic conscience, and no one's trying to take any shortcuts when it comes to doing things that, you know, may save a few dollars but be harmful to the public. Every single thing we do is always filtered through, or looked at through, the prism of community benefit. How are we impacting them? How can we mitigate any kind of, you know, harmful impact to the extent they exist? How can we relocate people, which is all done now, in the most humane way? And all of what you're talking about reflects, I think, the ethos of this project, which is a really important lesson for people to learn because infrastructure projects don't exist in a vacuum. They're part of a political ecosystem. The public, you know, matters in terms of making things easier or less easy to get done, but it also allows all of us working on the project to feel good that we are serving not just economic interest, not just commercial interests, but also civic interest. And I think the project, with great thanks to WDBA, the Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority, has done an amazing job with, you know, us, with everyone being sensitive to those needs and concerns.
Cranson: Yeah, we should especially give a shout out to Stephanie Campo who works with the WDBA and has just done yeoman's work in establishing relationships in the community and being responsive and answering questions and getting them every resource that they possibly need and ask for.
Doctoroff: Yeah, and speaking of Stephanie, and it's Heather Grondin as well. When we devised our community benefits plan, we went through a robust process of surveying, meeting, coming up with lists of requests that the community made, which were all understandable reasonable quests. Then we kind of hashed that out together as to what was possible and what was not possible. The amount of legwork and due diligence and conversation and outreach that Stephanie and Heather spearheaded was, you know, really, really impressive. Again, that's a reflection of this project's commitment to the community.
Cranson: I agree. Well said. I’m constantly impressed with the work that they do and they've been doing. And you've learned a lot along the way too, enough that you've even kind of because of your work and what you've learned about infrastructure and all that goes into it, you've created a whole curriculum for a class at U of M Law.
Doctoroff: Yeah, it's amazing what happens if you ask questions because you learn all sorts of new things. Again, when I joined the project, I had very little understanding of what infrastructure even really was, but when you immerse yourself so deeply in a project this magnitude and complexity and you're asking questions and people are willing to answer your questions, you learn. And then ideas pop into your head, and, you know, you think of other things to do.
Cranson: Yeah. Well, thanks, Andy. We'll revisit this again, you know, sometime in the coming weeks and, you know, continue to keep people updated on how the project's going.
Doctoroff: Yeah, it's a great opportunity to be able to speak to you, Jeff, and we'll talk soon.
Cranson: All right.
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.