Ann Arbor City Council Sunday caucus (March 1, 2009): At Sunday’s caucus, Mayor John Hieftje assessed the Ann Arbor city council agenda for Monday as “fairly light.” That’s also an accurate description of the kind of loads the Stadium Boulevard bridge over State Street can currently bear – with deterioration of the structure leading to two weight limit reductions in the last year, and a reduction of traffic to two lanes last week.
Even though it is not yet reflected on the agenda for Monday, it’s expected that Sue McCormick, public services director of the city of Ann Arbor, will brief council on the bridge at the start of its meeting.
Some of the handful of residents at caucus were there to inquire about the bridge (and city finances in general), while others were there to weigh in on the A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown) rezoning process, which the planning commission is literally in the midst of deliberating.
Also receiving some discussion was the Sunday editorial in the Ann Arbor News on the recent request by the city for the DDA to increase its revenues to ensure adequate reserves. A first-time caucus attendee was there to discuss a situation in the field services department of the city, which could be given little commentary by councilmembers present, in light of the fact that it involved a personnel matter.
Who was there representing city council? Ward 5 had a full complement with Carsten Hohnke and Mike Anglin both attending. Sabra Briere held the standard high for Ward 1. And Hieftje rounded out the council quartet.
Stadium Bridge at State Street
Some background: There are two nearly adjacent bridges on Stadium Boulevard (east-west) near State Street (north-south). One of the bridges spans State Street, while the other spans the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks (north-south). The specific bridge in question is the structure spanning State Street.
In late 2007 after a biannual inspection of the bridge, weight limits were reduced on the span. The limits were set as follows:
- 31 tons (reduced from 38 tons) for one-unit trucks (e.g., school or AATA buses)
- 39 tons (reduced from 48 tons) for two-unit trucks (e.g., a single-trailer semi)
- 44 tons (reduced from 54 tons) for three-unit trucks (e.g., a semi with two trailers)
Then in March 2008, a new round of weight reductions was triggered as the result of reports at the very end of 2007 (Dec. 29, 2007) of “medium-sized pieces of concrete” falling off one of the 16 pre-stressed concrete box beams supporting the roadway. Re-inspection by city staff and bridge engineering consultants in early January 2008 led to the short-term recommendation of a traffic control order further reducing weight limits:
- 19 tons for one-unit trucks (e.g., school or AATA buses)
- 24 tons for two-unit trucks (e.g., a single-trailer semi)
- 26 tons for three-unit trucks (e.g., a semi with two trailers)
In early February of this year (2009), the engineering consultant for the bridge, Northwest Consultants Inc., was called back to re-examine the bridge, after having conducted an inspection on Oct. 22, 2008. The reason for re-inspection was a concern by city of Ann Arbor engineering staff about one beam in particular, which appeared to be sagging. On re-inspection, NCI found that the fifth beam (counting from the south) was in fact sitting 7/8-inch lower than adjacent beams. Writing for NCI in a Feb. 12 memo, Jonathan Drummond gave this assessment:
At that time [October 2008] we did not observe any deflection of this beam relative to the adjacent beams. Thus, I am of the opinion that this is a relatively recent development.
The 7/8 inch of additional deflection found on this beam is a significant problem which will require precautionary measures to be taken. Excessive deflection is one of the primary warnings of impending beam failure. Of additional concern is how fast this deflection has developed. If traffic continues to drive over this beam I would expect the deflection to continue to grow, eventually leading to beam failure. Therefore, my recommendation to you is that traffic be removed from over top of this beam.
Beginning Feb. 23, 2009, the lanes over the bridges were scheduled to be reconfigured to conduct traffic over the northern portion of the bridge, which is not supported by the deflecting fifth beam. The result of that reconfiguration now leaves two lanes open over the bridge, one in each direction.
It’s worth noting that in contrast to the previous traffic control orders (weight reductions), which did not target any particular part of the bridge, the reduction to two lanes addresses a weakness stemming from the fifth beam in particular.
At the Feb. 1, 2009 city council caucus, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) expressed her frustration that the Stadium bridge project had not been a part of the stimulus package wish list submitted by the city of Ann Arbor – because the design had not been done and was not “shovel ready.”
Here’s some background on the design process. During the fall of 2007, informational workshops had been held on a comprehensive project to address replacement of the span over State Street as well as the one over the railroad, including non-motorized improvements (i.e., sidewalks) extending along Stadium Boulevard to Main Street and south along Main to Scio Church road. Those workshops were held on Sept. 18, 2007 and Oct. 2, 2007 at Pioneer High School’s cafeteria. They were well attended, especially by members of the Ann Arbor Golf and Outing Club, who were concerned that the proposed non-motorized improvements would have a negative impact on the course, which is nestled fairly tightly into the area on the southeast corner of the Stadium Boulevard and Main Street, across from Pioneer High School.
By early March 2008, the vision for the comprehensive renovation had met with a funding setback. The Michigan Department of Transportation awarded only $760,000 for the project, though the total cost was estimated at that time at around $35 million.
What happened to design work? In a Feb. 26, 2008 memo from Michael Nearing, senior project manager for the city of Ann Arbor’s project management unit, to Homayoon Pirooz, a manager in the same unit, indicates that the design work stalled for failure of Ward 4 councilmembers (Marcia Higgins and Margie Teall) to nominate a citizens advisory committee:
We have not [been] able to move forward on the preliminary design of the bridge over S. State Street or the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks because we are waiting for the 4th Ward City Council members to nominate and confirm a Citizens Advisory Committee to assist us with the public engagement process. It has been our experience with projects of this nature that it is important to consider and review all aspects of the proposed design with the citizens in order to make sure the project that we deliver meets community expectations.
In the short term, a replacement beam has been ordered, with repair work expected to cost around $500,000. The design work, which is now being done for the bridge, would cost around $1 million, Hieftje said at caucus.
Caucus Discussion: Initial conversation on the Stadium Boulevard bridge among residents and councilmembers focused on funding and priorities. What is it, asked one woman, that is taking budget money away from this project and does not allow us to proceed? Why is council distracted from priorities about infrastructure by other considerations, like the graffiti ordinance?
With respect to this first issue, Briere clarified that the reason that the project lacked funds was not that the city had decided to spend it on something else, but rather that the hoped-for state and federal support for the project had not materialized at the levels required to proceed. As for the second issue of priorities, Briere said that it wasn’t accurate to say the bridge replacement wasn’t a priority, noting that when she ran for council in 2007, the need to replace the bridge was on everyone’s list.
As a followup to the funding question, the question was asked: Why not simply issue a bond? Hohnke explained that normally the city would receive significant state and federal support, so the hope was to avoid having the city shoulder the entire financial burden (by issuing a bond). Added Hieftje: “I don’t know of a local government who would do it without state and federal assistance.”
Hieftje also offered the view that with recent developments regarding the beam, the project was more likely than before to be funded, noting that it was still not ranked as a “critical” bridge project. He said that money was being pursued in other ways, via federal earmarks through the offices of Mark Schauer (U.S. Congress 7th District) and John Dingell (U.S. Congress 15th District), saying that he’d had dinner with Dingell a week ago Friday, and that he felt it wouldn’t be surprising for the money for the project to be available very shortly.
Replying to Hieftje’s remark that the bridge was not ranked as “critical,” a resident pointed out that on a 0-100 scale of bridge safety, the Stadium bridge scored a 21, which was the same score the bridge in St. Paul had when it collapsed in August of 2007: “If it kills a couple of people, that’s a big deal.” Hieftje confirmed the bridge’s score of 21 on the 100-point scale, but stressed that the situation was being monitored closely by city engineering staff every few days, and that they would simply shut down the bridge if there was any doubt as to its safety.
Someone mooted the alternative of taking down both bridges to establish an at-grade crossing of Stadium Boulevard by the railroad and State Street. Briere said the way she thought about that possibility was this: The traffic when a train comes through would back up past Main Street. A non-starter.
The idea was floated of leveraging the University of Michigan’s interest in seeing the east-west connection remain free-flowing for football games. Hieftje’s attempt at humor (“At 8 in the morning of a 1 o’clock game, we’ll have to shut the bridge down.”) was met with silence and had to be labeled as a joke. Hiefte allowed that discussions with the university were “an angle that may well come up.” Write your regents, he suggested.
Responding to a question by The Chronicle about a mention by Hieftje of using the street millage to pay for the $500,000 repair, Hieftje said that if the street millage could not be used, then there was money in the general fund that could be tapped. The Chronicle’s question stemmed from the fact that while the street millage can be used to repair and maintain streets, this particular “street” is actually a bridge.
Queried by The Chronicle, Hieftje responded to Higgins’ expressed disappointment at caucus that a basic bridge had not already been designed by saying that for these types of projects, the investment in design work (in this case around $1 million) was not made until a funding source had been identified.
In what Briere described as “a provocative thought,” one resident suggested that the current reduction over the bridge to two lanes offered an opportunity to examine the actual impact of that scenario, if it were to be pursued long term. In light of increasing costs for asphalt and maintenance of structures like bridges, the idea was to explore rebuilding the bridge permanently as two lanes. Though seemingly intrigued by the notion, Briere noted that the Pauline-to-Main section of Stadium was due for reconstruction starting this season, and that it called for four lanes. So she wondered about the impact of reducing the width from four down to two lanes. The idea for a permanent reduction of the bridge to two lanes was articulated further to include a “road diet” for Stadium Boulevard, taking it down to three lanes.
On the subject of making the bridge permanently two lanes, one resident offered her perspective as a bus driver, saying that even with its four lane configuration, she wondered if she should hit the embankment or the next car.
[Editor's note: More photos of the Stadium Boulevard bridge are posted at the end of this article.]
The Ann Arbor planning commission began deliberations at its last meeting on the A2D2 rezoning package for downtown Ann Arbor. They did not finish before adjourning. (See previous Chronicle coverage of A2D2 for additional background.) In broad strokes, the new zoning for downtown would create a D-1 district for core downtown with a D-2 district acting as a transition to residential neighborhoods. There would be no height limits in D-1 generally. D-2, on the other hand, would include height limits.
The focus of the height-limit discussion to date has centered on the South University Avenue area, where the 601 S. Forest project provoked controversy when first proposed as a 20+ story building. In the end, the project height had been reduced to around 160 feet.
For the A2D2 rezoning, the South University area had been assigned a special version of D-1 – one that includes height limits. At its initial meeting on the A2D2 package last month, planning commission passed (with some dissent) an amendment that raised the initially proposed D-1 height limit for the South University area from 120 feet to 170 feet, with the idea that it would make 601 S. Forest conform to the new zoning.
At Sunday’s caucus, one resident complained that she’d missed that one meeting and was surprised that the height limit was being raised. Having participated in the public process on the rezoning project over a couple of years, she said that she wondered if it was even worth it.
Hieftje encouraged her to continue to stay involved in the process and assured her that the whole A2D2 zoning package would “land in our laps” at city council. He said that on one occasion he had once been the only member of council to vote for height limits – something Hieftje frequently says when the topic of downtown development comes up. Now, he allowed, there might be others on council who would also support height limits.
Planning commission will resume its A2D2 deliberations on Tuesday, March 3.
Planning commission also came up in the context of a conversational thread on the relationship of the city of Ann Arbor to the Downtown Development Authority. As far as being “a part of the city of Ann Arbor,” Hieftje said the DDA was “no different from planning commission except that they had their own funding stream” – the tax increment financing (TIF) district.
The conversation was prompted by a request from citizens at caucus for Hieftje to respond to Sunday’s Ann Arbor News editorial on the use of parking revenue collected by the DDA to shore up the city’s general fund. The concluding paragraph from that editorial reads:
The DDA doesn’t need further rate hikes because its costs are going up, or because it’s mismanaging its money, or anything like that. The DDA needs more money because the council keeps taking it, and it would be nice if the council came out and said so.
Previous Chronicle coverage on the issue can be found in our account of the most recent DDA operations committee meeting. In broad strokes, city council has recently asked the DDA to (i) open discussions on revising the current parking agreement (projected to result in a $2 million transfer from the DDA to the city), and (ii) to put forward a plan to raise revenues to maintain adequate reserves in DDA fund balances.
Hieftje’s response was to say that he saw the editorial as demonstrating that the News’ memory of recent history is not as strong as it might be. He then traced back the past renegotiation of the parking agreement and the decision by the city to allow the DDA to collect revenues from metered parking.
The city went back to renegotiate that agreement in 2005, Hieftje said, because the city provides a disproportionate amount of city services to the DDA area – citing police calls at 2 a.m. as an example. The DDA is a creation of the city, continued Hieftje, and the city could end the DDA tomorrow night with 6 votes of council, if it wanted to. Hieftje then said he hadn’t read the editorial.
The Chronicle asked Hieftje what point specifically Hieftje thought qualified as the News not having an adequate memory of recent history – given that he had not read the piece. Hieftje replied that he’d been told about the editorial, and that to him the key fact that went missing was that the city had elected to allow the DDA to retain revenue from metered parking.
The Chronicle followed up by asking Hieftje if the city’s current initiative to open the parking agreement negotiations again represented a philosophical change from the tenet that parking should pay for itself, but also no more than itself. We drew an analogy to the storm water fee, which is supposed to pay for the maintenance of the stormwater system, but is not supposed to generate gratuitous fund balances that can be used on non-stormwater projects. Hieftje said that already in 2005 (when the city negotiated for $10 million to be transferred from the DDA over the course of 10 years) there was a philosophy in place that would allow for parking revenue to fund non-parking needs. And that change in philosophy, Hieftje said, was driven by the fact that the DDA area uses a disproportionately greater amount of city services.
Providing some context on the question of parking revenues and parking system, Hohnke noted that enabling legislation to create a DDA does not speak to parking, but only to TIF.
Residents urged Hieftje to write a letter to the editor in response to the News editorial. However, Briere clarified that by policy, the Ann Arbor News did not publish op-ed pieces by elected officials, because the paper felt that officials had an adequate forum to express their views in virtue of their elected office. At that, residents suggested that Hieftje use his time during the “communications” portion of council meetings to address the content of the editorial.