Ann Arbor road construction: Frustration mounts as work progresses
Anyone trying to drive around Ann Arbor this spring might come to one conclusion: You can’t get there from here.
The number of road projects under way in the city has climbed, and so has their scope: While reconstruction on West Stadium was a signature project a few years ago, drivers this year are confronted with orange barrels and “detour” signs at major intersections and thoroughfares around the city.
Five lanes of Packard east of Platt are down to two. Dexter Avenue is closed to through traffic. Northbound Glen Avenue is closed. Huron Parkway is operating with fewer lanes, following a temporary closing of the Geddes Road intersection.
And East Stadium Boulevard—already smarting from a complex detour as its bridges over South State get reconstructed—now must endure resurfacing and water main replacement.
How are drivers reacting?
“I’m hearing that it’s getting into people’s way,” said Susan Pollay, executive director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority.
And the emotions the road work generates includes “frustration and confusion,” she said.
But at the same time, there’s some relief: “People,” she said, “are grateful the city is investing in repaving as much as they are.”
Many city road projects—which also can include water line replacement, like on Dexter, Packard and Hill streets—were put on hold as officials worked out funding for the Stadium Bridges work.
When a federal grant came through for $13.9 million of that $22.8 million project, funds were freed for other projects. This year the city is repaving 37 streets.
“There was less planned in the past because there was a chance that we’d have to spend road millage money on the bridges,” said Les Sipowski, senior project manager.
Sipowski didn’t have totals for all road work in the city this spring, but there’s about $7.6 million for repaving, $3.6 million for East Stadium and another $3 million for Packard.
The actual construction is one aspect of the work. Another component for city staff is rerouting drivers.
That’s been a challenge this year, Sipowski said.
“The Stadium bridges definitely put a monkey wrench in the transportation system,” he said. “Once you remove such an important link from the city system, it hurts.”
Some detours are more easy to plan than others, he said. Key among the easier ones: Roads in areas where the streets were formed in grids, like the Old West Side.
Other areas are designed in a more “suburban shape,” he said, with limited alternative routes. That’s the case with Packard, where few nearby east-west alternatives exist, and one—Washtenaw—already operates at or near capacity.
“When we have a situation like that, it is really difficult to find a good, high-capacity detour route,” Sipowski said.
Recent work at Fuller, Geddes and Huron Parkway resulted in traffic delays as one direction of traffic had to be closed at a time as a safety measure.
That, Sipowski said, can be “extremely inefficient” for traffic flow.
That area, near Huron High School, is one of the most frustrating for drivers who are giving feedback to the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
One parent told spokesperson Liz Margolis that it took her an hour to get back and forth from the Carpenter area to Huron on one day in May. But it’s not just there, it’s “all over town,” Margolis said.
Buses have been affected, too, and officials have been looking at alternatives to ensure they’re consistently on time.
Other issues that may be accentuating the road work pressure for drivers are signal systems that still need to be manually changed. Some—like at Eisenhower—easily adapt to traffic changes due to software that adjust timing in real-time.
Sipkowski said city staff understands the pressure facing drivers. The worst stretch of road work in the city in his opinion is on Packard near Platt, where delays of eastbound traffic stretch for city blocks during rush hour and neighborhood streets have had to be closed to cut-through drivers.
“Removing 50 percent of capacity makes it very, very difficult to handle.”
And yes, the project management unit is hearing from drivers—many of whom accuse the city of not doing enough.
“But I think that we are trying diligently to minimize delays,” Sipkowski said.
On Dexter Avenue, where Huron forms a fork with Jackson, John Mendler agrees.
He owns Mallek’s Service Station, which is selling less than half of its average 2,000 gallons of fuel per day now that Dexter is closed to through traffic.
“It’s a pain in the butt, but we’re surviving,” he said.
Dust from the construction is annoying, and he finds that his morning customer traffic has dwindled to nothing. He suspects that’s because drivers have found other routes.
But he’s also not critical of the process: Sometimes afternoon sales pick up, he said. “And it’s not like I didn’t have any warning.”
He also said the progress by the work crews makes a difference.
“They’re working and they’re working hard,” he said. “.. It’s not as bad as it could be.”
Meanwhile, staff is doing its best to keep projects on track.
“They’re going at it, knowing the community needs it,” Pollay said.
And the good news in all of this, Sipowski said: Most of the projects are on schedule, if not ahead of it.
“It’s going relatively smoothly,” he said. “ They used the warm weather nicely. The projects are moving along well.”