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State officials have launched a public survey seeking redesign input on US-131 from 28th Street to the Wealthy Street interchange (above). State officials have launched a public survey seeking redesign input on US-131 from 28th Street to the Wealthy Street interchange (above). MIBIZ FILE PHOTO

MDOT study of U.S. 131 to balance industrial, placemaking concerns

BY Sunday, February 27, 2022 06:21pm

GRAND RAPIDS —  The Michigan Department of Transportation has launched an online survey seeking public feedback on potential redesign strategies for a contentious segment of US-131 between 28th Street and Wealthy Street. 

The state’s fiscal year budget that began Oct. 1 included $10 million to study the reconstruction or reconfiguration of the Wealthy Street interchange that has been referred to as the most dangerous intersection in the state. The interchange marks the southern border of the S-curve through downtown Grand Rapids. 

The online survey will run through April 7 and is part of a state planning and environmental linkages (PEL) study that is meant to identify environmental, community and economic goals as well as traffic issues early in the planning process. 

As the city’s population continues to expand, US-131 is often forgotten as a heavily freight-based corridor used by several large industries in the area, said Tim Mroz, senior vice president of community development at The Right Place Inc. 

“We need to balance the increasing community development and growth of our city along with the economic growth that’s happening in our city,” Mroz said. “Our position on this project has been to ensure that the planning process remembers the freight importance of this corridor.”

‘False sense of permanence’

Urban design and placemaking advocates have viewed the issue much differently for years.

Ted Lott, principal with Lott3Metz Architecture LLC, rejects framing the issue around industrial freight’s needs, arguing that the existing unsafe design should be eliminated.

“Our city needs to be strong about this, and we haven’t been,” Lott said. “We need to tell MDOT what we want, that it’s not acceptable to tweak things and make a longer on- or off-ramp. We want our street grid to be connected. We have this false sense of permanence with this infrastructure because we don’t know our city another way.”

The concept of redesigning the area surrounding the S-curve dates back decades, with some supporting a redesign that puts the stretch of US-131 at grade, potentially rerouting freight traffic to I-196.

Lott also sees a lack of alignment between the city’s stated transportation goals and the goals of the MDOT study. The city’s 20-year-old master plan recommends improving street connectivity in general as well as enhancing pedestrian and bicycle access. 

Farther north of the MDOT survey area, the city’s master plan specifically identifies US-131 on the west bank of the Grand River north of downtown, recommending “strategies for eliminating or minimizing this barrier” to reconnect communities on the west side to the river. 

“In the longer term, when major reconstruction of this segment of US-131 is being planned, the Master Plan recommends that the possibility of eliminating the US-131 embankment be explored to create an at grade urban boulevard between Ann St. and 196. In conjunction with this redesign, east-west streets should be extended to the riverfront,” according to the master plan.

Mark Miller, managing director of planning and design with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., believes MDOT is having conversations about improving street connectivity as well as large-scale changes to make the area more pedestrian friendly. Miller serves on the local advisory committee for the US-131 PEL study.

“One option is to keep the highway as is and widen it to make it more safe to ease congestion concerns. But there are other options like creating an urban boulevard,” Miller said. “As we look at the movement of cars and trucks, we should look at the east and west connectivity. Also, from the economic development angle, there is a lot of land development associated with this highway.”

Still critical for freight

The Right Place and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce have heard frequently from freight-reliant businesses along the corridor that the section is difficult to navigate, Mroz said.

“When it comes to industrial freight flow, that corridor is critical for a lot of business here,” Mroz added. 

Columbian Logistics Network has six facilities in the Grand Rapids area, including a warehouse at 900 Hall St. SW along the corridor. The company has 75 to 80 arrivals or departures of trucks shipping product on any given day from the facility, said Blair Thomas, vice president of client services at Columbian Logistics Network. 

“It’s a heavy commuter space, but it also has a lot of freight traffic,” Thomas said. “Our trucks can’t get up to 55 miles per hour before they have to merge, which is why it locks down during rush hour. Having a longer shoulder run to make the merge is necessary if they’re going to make any changes there.”

He hopes that a safer experience would result from what could be a lengthy construction process to potentially redesign or eliminate one of the entrance ramps.

“At the end of the day, we’d have to shoulder an impact for a couple of years of construction time for hopefully better, safer access,” Thomas said. “If they are going to do a big project and don’t solve some of the problems, then shame on them. I’d love to see the area have more safety and reliable ways to get in and out. When someone wants to invest in upgrading the roads, we have to take our medicine.”

Longtime concern

MDOT’s new public feedback request is the latest in a yearslong process of rethinking both the US-131 and I-196 corridors.

Urbanists and community residents have expressed frustration that prior feedback spanning decades has been ignored by the state while US-131 and the S-curve has remained largely untouched since it was constructed in the 1960s.

“In the past, it has been more of a brainstorming conversation, whereas this time with the PEL study it is more of an official transit study,” Mroz said. “MDOT is spending money and allocating resources this time to look at new and better alternatives for the corridor. That in and of itself is a change from past feedback sessions.”

An MDOT official previously told MiBiz that an estimated $600 million would be needed to reconstruct the S-curve area without making any changes to the layout, and that construction would likely not begin for at least six or seven years. Still, the new public comment period allows respondents to voice ways that potential redesigns of the interchange could be more effective. 

“The hope is that we can go through this planning process now, and when funding does become available we have the data, planning and research so we can execute something a lot faster,” Mroz said. 

The survey asks respondents to improve the route through several design strategies, such as adding lanes and improving the shoulder, enhancing or adding local street connections, and improving intersection designs “for truck movement.” Specific questions also involve the US-131 segment from Hall Street to Market Avenue, which has the highest number of traffic crashes in West Michigan, according to MDOT data. 

“This is the oldest segment of West Michigan’s highway that’s still in operation today,” Mroz said. “It’s nearing the end of its useful life.” 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Tim Mroz’s title. He is senior vice president of community development at The Right Place Inc.

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