When it comes to commerce in Michigan, many people probably think of the auto industry. However, the state is host many other industries as well. Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the home of a number of medical facilities, branches of Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University, and a thriving craft beer scene. Each of these industries has contributed to significant growth in the area leading to more traffic and back-ups. In response, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is working on an undertaking known as the I-196/I-96/East Beltline Avenue project. In addition to easing traffic, the project is expected to greatly improve operations and increase safety.
A Multi-Phase Project
The I-196/I-96/East Beltline Avenue project is being done in two phases. The first phase began in the fall of 2018 while the second and larger phase began in early 2019. The first phase of the project involves the removal of one bridge and the construction of two new bridges. Originally, the plans included rebuilding the bridge over I-196. However, "because of the way the bridge was required to be designed, the costs soared," says David Kent, who served as the Project Manager during the design phase. "Ultimately, we found we could build two bridges at a more reasonable cost." One of the new bridges being installed is a single-span 220-foot curved steel beam bridge that will carry eastbound I-96. The other is a two-span 230-foot curved steel bridge that connects I-96 to M-37 (East Beltline Avenue).
During phase two of the project, MDOT will be replacing the original pavement along the I-196 that was installed in 1964, adding a lane on westbound and eastbound, and reconfiguring eastbound I-196 to create a dedicated exit lane to East Beltline Avenue. Currently, westbound I‑196 goes over eastbound I-96. After construction is completed, the new bridge will carry eastbound I-96 over westbound I‑196. Hence, the project's nickname – the flip. The bridges to carry I-96 and the exit ramp to East Beltline Avenue over I-196 are less expensive and simpler to construct than the original bridge replacement on I-196. This change also provides the ability to make further improvements to the interchange in the future with minimal traffic disruption.
Keeping Commuters Informed
The area where construction will take place is heavily traveled. Approximately, 100,000 cars a day travel along where eastbound I-96 and eastbound I-196 meet, according to Nate Van Drunen, the Construction Engineer on the project. The new construction is expected to ease congestion in the area, which currently experiences regular backups and bottlenecks. "The area has experienced tremendous growth in the last 10 years, which has made congestion on the roadway a regular issue," says Van Drunen. The same location requires cars to weave and merge. The new bridge will have dedicated lanes for commuters to utilize and alleviate the weaving.
Sound complicated? Well, MDOT is doing all it can to make sure commuters are clear on the changes coming. They created a video simulation that documents the changes and clearly points out the benefits. "People see the video and say 'thank goodness. It's about time,'" says John Richard, MDOT Communications Representative. To inform people about the construction, MDOT has a ListServe that sends emails out to thousands of commuters. In addition, they put the word out via social media. "People can also see the earthwork going on, as it’s highly visible," says Richard.
While the project is taking place, commuters will have to deal with some inconveniences including lane, bridge, and ramp closures. Commuters are used to construction in the area as multiple projects have been taken place in the vicinity over the last few years. For example, in 2010, I-196 headed towards downtown Grand Rapids was fully reconstructed. Nonetheless, commuters' convenience was considered when planning the project. "There's been a good deal of coordination to make sure to have a detour route maintained, so commuters will not be excessively detained," says Kent.
Other construction challenges have come up with the piling. Crews are using 16-inch diameter, 1/2-inch thick tubes filled with concrete for piling. "We're using end-bearing piles rather than H-piles mostly due to the soil type, the piles are anticipated to end in sand after punching through layers of clay. They offer better support for the conditions encountered," says Kent.
As part of construction, 400 to 500 feet of a stream, which normally flows approximately 1-foot deep, had to be relocated. A partial stream location was required and included wetland seeding as part of the mitigation. The soil in the area is saturated and has some compressible materials. A wick drain system was installed in October 2018. Two feet of drainable sand was filled in and the wicks were installed at a spacing of 5 to 8 feet, which are made of corrugated plastic, and drilled 20 to 30 feet into the ground. The wick drains include a monitoring system to check how much drainage blanket settles.
"We're expecting 5 to 6 inches of settlement over four months," Van Drunen. "We have to wait the four months and monitor the settlement to ensure it’s within range." An embankment is being built on top of where the wick system was installed.
Confident In On Time Delivery
While the project is in its early stages, Kent is confident it can be completed on time. While he says the schedule is “generous” in 2020, there's a lot of work to get done in 2019, which was the toughest for scheduling. "We may have two different contractors out there during that time, which can be challenging," says Kent. He also adds, "Weather can always be a factor." The project is scheduled to be completed prior to the winter of 2020.
The project is being funded by both the federal and state taxes. Originally, the project only included the additional lane on westbound I-96 and I-196, which experiences the majority of backups. MDOT was able to obtain the funds to create the third lane on eastbound I-196 through a new operations template implemented for the 2019 year with funding from the Federal Highway Infrastructure Program. This program targets taking advantage of major reconstruction projects to add operational improvements cost effectively. Cost savings from bridge flip allowed MDOT to add the median lane on I-96 westbound from East Beltline Avenue to the I-96/I-196 split and the realignment of I-196 eastbound into I-96 eastbound relocated making the separate off-ramp to East Beltline Avenue possible rather than down the road.
While Michigan may always be thought of as the home of the auto industry, the Grand Rapids area is thriving due to a few industries. The I-196/I-96/East Beltline Avenue project will ease access for commuters to and from the area and enable them to experience all that the city has to offer.
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