Michigan DOT Hopes to Decrease Traffic Incidents with US 131 Reconstruction
Improved Access and Walkability: Michigan DOT Brings Increased Safety to Three Rivers County with US 131 Reconstruction
Good infrastructure does not simply mean sufficient infrastructure. Infrastructure is not enabling peak movement for users unless it’s as safe as it can be. The reconstruction of U.S. 131 in Three Rivers County, Michigan, is occurring to improve safety.
There have been quite a few crashes along key areas of U.S. 131 over the years. The area has also seen multiple pedestrian deaths over the past decade. The reconstruction project has been in the planning stage since 2013. The lengthy time before the project was begun is because the project significantly changes the character of the U.S. 131 corridor. The significant changes require federal highway review, environmental clearances and several public comment meetings.
The $20 million project is taking place over a 2.3-mile stretch of highway. Elements of the project include reconfiguring an interchange at the south end of U.S. 131. Prior to the project, there was lots of cross traffic as well as weaving ramps. “The U.S. 131/M-60 interchange is being realigned to a more traditional t-section,” says Greg Finnila, Construction Engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). Finnila, who oversees quality control, assurance, and finances, for the project believes this will improve safety.
Currently, at the eastbound M-60 intersection with U.S. 131, there’s a free flow ramp that leads to site distance issues. “The distance of how far drivers could see was limited due to the angle of buildings,” says Finnila “and so their perspective on what they were merging into was limited.” Vehicles that merge onto eastbound M-60 create a speed differential that increases the probability of a traffic incident. The free flow ramp is being removed and the intersection is being re-aligned.
To help pedestrians cross safely, a grass median is being constructed in the center of the route. “This will help pedestrians cross more safely since they can go over only two lanes and reach a safe harbor on the median,” says Finnila. “They don’t have to do it in one trip.”
Indirect left turns, or Michigan lefts, are being installed. Michigan lefts, which the state has utilized since the late 1960’s, have been shown to increase safety for drivers and pedestrians, relieve congestion, allow greater capacity, and reduce average delays to left-turning vehicles and through traffic. Michigan left means drivers must drive straight or turn right, then make a U-turn at a median crossover, guided by sign.
Finnila says, “Michigan lefts reduce the number of decisions a driver has to make and spreads out the number of conflict points leading to a lesser chance that drivers will make an error.” In order to install a Michigan left, sufficient property needs to be available in order to allow space for trucks. In this case, the grass median that is being installed provides the needed width at the location of the indirect lefts.
Lastly, traffic signals along U.S. 131 are being modernized. They are being connected to one another and times are being set to enable larger gaps of traffic. “This way drivers won’t have to rush to shoot through the gap,” says Finnila.
Other Elements of the Project
The town of Three Rivers, which has a population of approximately 7,700, wants to increase the walkability of their downtown area. Elements of the project are being included to make this a reality.
Residents live on the east side of the route (which runs through Three Rivers), while there are quite a few large businesses on the west side. A sidewalk is being added that runs through this business district. In addition, a shared-use path is also being added.
Another part of the project, that is not directly safety related, is bridge deck work. The bridge, which runs over the Rocky River, is undergoing some minor upgrades and patching. A new surface course is being put on the northbound bridge.
The final aspect of the project is the planting of trees along the route. “The trees provide beautification and define where routes use to be and serve as guide for drivers,” says Finnila.
The two-year project began in May 2019. The 2019 construction season concluded in November. Construction is expected to be complete in November 2020.
In 2019, work was done on the north end and south end but not in the middle. “We did this to help local businesses,” says Finnila. “They didn’t want the ground torn up in front of their businesses throughout the entire project.” So, MDOT started at a strategic point that enabled businesses access in the middle during 2019.
The project includes a good deal of utility work. “There have been multiple conflicts with the utilities,” says Finnila. The conflicts and complications have arisen since MDOT is changing the footprint of the road. They are putting road where utilities used to be situated. MDOT is working with the utilities to relocate the utilities to an acceptable place.
Typically, work of this type is happening outside of population centers. This road is not just a connector, but one that runs through the city. “This is one of the larger urban projects we are involved in,” says Finnila.
To enable this project to move along smoothly, there’s been a significant amount of outreach done to notify businesses, so they know what’s comping up and are not surprised. They don’t want to be closed down, and they don’t need to be. People will be able to get to their businesses throughout construction.
The federal government is financing most of the project (80 percent). The state is picking up the rest with a small contribution from the city. City funds are going towards some of the asphalt path.
While the project is on budget so far, Finnila note that potential issues remain. “There is lots of underground work to be done, and that is traditionally where there are more unknowns.”
When the reconstruction of U.S. 131 in Three Rivers County, Michigan, is complete, drivers and pedestrians will see improved safety. The city will be more walkable. With improved access to the business district, economic benefits are a distinct possibility.