The city of Ann Arbor’s attempt to start accumulating cash to replace the East Stadium Boulevard bridges failed on Thursday when a statewide board appropriating money for large bridges declined to give the city a share of the available dollars.
City officials had hoped to secure a portion of the $5.7 million in federal and state dollars awarded by the Local Bridges Advisory Board on Thursday at a meeting in Lansing.
But with a limited pot of money, and applications for projects totaling tens of millions of dollars, the eight-member board opted to put the resources behind smaller-ticket bridges.
“Throwing a little bit at that big a problem isn’t going to get people anywhere,” said board chairman Robert Clegg, the city engineer in Port Huron.
Why Ann Arbor Didn’t Win State Funding
A share of the available dollars would have provided just a fraction of the $23 million that Ann Arbor officials estimate it will take to replace the bridges, which lead over the railroad tracks and State Street just east of the University of Michigan’s football stadium and Crisler Arena.
In contrast, significant portions of the three bridges that were funded on Thursday will be covered by the money approved by the board. The money will pay for projects in Kalamazoo County and in the cities of Hastings and Manistee.
Ann Arbor’s proposal was, in fact, the most costly of the 10 projects before the bridge board. And board member Wayne Harrall, of the Kent County Road Commission, also commented on the minimal impact an appropriation would have on the second largest project – a bridge in the City of Sterling Heights. That request also went unfunded.
Other concerns weakened Ann Arbor’s funding request as well.
Clegg, in particular, faulted the city’s application for the absence of any financial commitment from the University of Michigan.
“You’ve got a large partner next to the road that’s generating traffic impact,” he told Ann Arbor city engineers who were in Lansing to address the board, which is made up of representatives from county and local governments. “I don’t understand why the university hasn’t stepped up or used its influence to get federal dollars, and it’s disheartening.”
Ann Arbor engineer Homayoon Pirooz responded that it was unfair to punish the city for UM’s decision.
“Yes, the university benefits (from the bridges) like everyone else does,” he said. “We wish the university would contribute, but it’s not and the city can’t change that.”
Pirooz told the state board that the city was prepared to take on the lion’s share of the cost, if necessary.
That would mean using local street millage dollars normally dedicated to paving and maintenance. If Ann Arbor needed to use those locally-generated dollars on the bridges, most other maintenance work would be suspended for 3-4 years, he said. “It would have a significant impact on streets and roads.”
City officials have also contemplated the prospect of something like a 50-50 split between local and other funding sources, and of course still hope for a larger state and federal contribution, Priooz said.
The city is seeking federal funds either from a pending transportation bill or an economic-recovery program, known by the acronym TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.)
It’s possible that yet another federal program could provide a low-interest loan to pay for sidewalks and bike lanes, Pirooz told The Chronicle. “If we get a little here and a little there, hopefully it will add up,” he said.
Clegg would have been happier to see more of that “adding up” done before an application for assistance reached the board.
“I’ve seen communities work and work and get [congressional] earmarks and then come in and tell us how much more they needed,” he told The Chronicle after the board meeting. “That gives you something to work with. This is a really big project and Ann Arbor’s asking ‘What can you do for us?’”
Short-Term Work to Address Safety Issues
Built before 1930, the bridges carry traffic over State Street and Ann Arbor Railroad tracks. They’ve been subject to weight limits for some time. Two of the four lanes were closed to take the load off a weakened beam on the State Street bridge earlier this year.
City officials last month decided to remove the sagging beam as well as several others alongside it, based on the advice of an outside consultant.
That will eliminate the risk of concrete dropping on to State Street. It will also leave “a big hole in the bridge,” said Pirooz, who heads the city’s project management office.
The beams would need to be removed anyway, as part of an eventual bridge replacement.
Concrete barriers and fencing will be put in place as part of the work scheduled to take place Nov. 15-18.
Statewide, Condition of Bridges a Concern
A federal bridge engineer attending the five-hour session in Lansing expressed concern about the condition of the state’s bridges in general and the East Stadium bridge over State Street in particular.
Jon Nekritz, Federal Highway Administration division bridge engineer for Michigan, said he was relieved to hear that a crumbling concrete beam will be removed later this month.
“I’m real concerned about this and other bridges I’ve seen recently,” he said. “We need to take this much more seriously than we are.”
He voiced similar worries about an Oakland County bridge that was also reviewed for potential funding.
Michigan Department of Transportation’s Mark Harrison, an engineer and the bridge program manager, said he’s seen a marked increase in bridges in poor condition – but no additional money.
Clegg also pointed to the lack of funding. “It’s a little bit daunting to have tens of millions of dollars in projects and less than $6 million to award,” he said.
Despite that, there was no objective set of criteria or any real system used to make the decisions.
A rating system is used in decisions made at the regional level, said Harrison. But members of the state-level board use their own discretion.
For Clegg, that included the view that the East Stadium plan is simply overlarge.
“They’ve got two bridges connecting, sidewalks and bicycle lanes. They’re going to raise them from where they are now… If you need more clearance, that’s what you do. It’s just too much,” he told The Chronicle.
The planned replacement bridges will be higher to meet current design standards. Like the old structures, they will have two lanes in each direction. Unlike the old structures, they will have sidewalks on both sides and bicycle lanes.
Federal authorities require both, said Nekritz, the federal bridge engineer.
Only one Ann Arbor resident – Arnold Goetzke – attended the session. But rather than call for support, Goetzke spoke against funding for new bridges and instead favored at-grade crossings. Goetze also addressed the Ann Arbor city council at the conclusion of their Thursday meeting during public commentary. He reiterating the view that he’s expressed before to them: The no-bridge option should be given formal study.
What About Bridge Replacement?
However, the preliminary design for the new bridges is done. Pirooz said work has begun on construction plans. “We hope to have the blueprints by midsummer.”
Work to replace the bridges is expected to begin next October, Pirooz told The Chronicle. The new bridges would be completed in the fall of 2012, he said. If neither the earmarks on the transportation bill nor the TIGER grant application are successful, they may well use up the majority of Ann Arbor’s street repair millage funds.
A yet-to-be-made decision about whether to close traffic completely or allow one-way traffic during construction would affect the duration of construction. That decision will fall to the city council.
The bridges carry an average of 25,000 plus cars a day.
About the writer: Judy McGovern lives in Ann Arbor. She has worked as a journalist here, and in Ohio, New York and several other states.