Published in Economic Development
The Wealthy Street interchange at US-131 is part of a dangerous, aging S-curve that’s being examined for reconstruction. The Wealthy Street interchange at US-131 is part of a dangerous, aging S-curve that’s being examined for reconstruction. PHOTO BY KATE CARLSON

‘Such an animal:’ State prepares for inevitable reconstruction of the unsafe, aging S-curve:

BY Sunday, October 10, 2021 07:00pm

GRAND RAPIDS — The state’s new fiscal year budget that began Oct. 1 includes $10 million to study the reconstruction or potential reconfiguration of the Wealthy Street interchange on US-131 that officials have referred to as the most dangerous intersection in the state. 

The $10 million — approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Sept. 29 — would only cover a fraction of the estimated $600 million that will be needed to reconstruct the S-curve without making any changes to its layout, Michigan Department of Transportation Spokesperson John Richard told MiBiz.

MDOT is in the process of conducting a Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) study on the US-131 corridor between 28th Street and the S-curve in downtown Grand Rapids. Even though no other funding has been identified to upgrade the thoroughfare, Richard said changes are inevitable. 

“If you look down at the pavement you can see big, round polished aggregate stone chances that were used when it was first constructed in the ’50s and ’60s,” Richard said. “At the very minimum, what is currently there has to be reconstructed and built with new foundation, new drainage, new bridges and ramps. Everything we do is based on condition — that’s the driving factor, and it’s time to reconstruct this.”

Even if there is more funding allocated for the project, construction will not begin for at least six to seven years, Richard said. 

“Generally speaking, that area and the bridge in particular, we all recognize it is old so it clearly needs some attention,” said Tim Kelly, president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. “We do a fairly regular accessibility audit with Disability Advocates of Kent County and that is the most dangerous intersection for pedestrians.

‘Pain in our behind’

The MDOT study will likely wrap up next fall. Over the years, community leaders have voiced how the highway configuration is unsafe for both pedestrians and motorists. 

“The S-curve is this pain in our behind that we’ve been stuck with forever and feel like we are going to be stuck with forever,” said Daniel Drent, co-chair of the Heartside Downtown Neighborhood Association.

The Wealthy Street and Cherry Street interchanges are close together, which adds to the traffic concerns on the S-curve, Drent said. Reconfiguring the stretch of highway has been discussed for years, but there has never been adequate funding to make changes, he said. 

“Traffic is always backed up, and it’s almost impossible for a semi-truck to make an entrance or exit off of those ramps on the first attempt,” Drent said. “I don’t think the concern is coming so much from being able to get downtown from US-131, it’s more with the ease without experiencing delays and other problems.”

Drent’s top concern is with pedestrian safety in general, and for the safety of unhoused community members who are frequently standing at the congested, narrow intersection corners, he said. 

Meanwhile, planned developments at the 201 Market property as well as a major mixed-use plan at the former Sligh Furniture Co. building only add to concerns about the interchange’s ability to handle additional traffic.

“We have not had any formal discussions at this point as a board, outside of talking about it amongst ourselves,” Drent said. “Our hope is we’ll get included in any discussions that are part of the study. Unfortunately, in the past the city and the state have done a very poor job in getting community involvement in these types of projects.”

MDOT has gathered public feedback on the US-131 and I-196 corridors over the past decade. Urbanists and community members have come together in support of doing away with the S-curve, or at least altering it to improve the flow of traffic. Suggestions have included razing the S-curve and replacing it with a more easily accessible, at-grade street. Others have suggested weave-merge lanes should be implemented to improve traffic flow. 

S-curve critics have noted how reconfiguring the area would improve multimodal transportation in downtown Grand Rapids, and even provide more land for future redevelopment projects downtown. 

MDOT’s study is the most comprehensive that has been done on US-131 because of how involved the project is expected to be, Richard said. A public meeting has taken place along with a survey, but “more of that” is coming soon, he said.

“We know it’s going to be such an animal to replace or preserve,” Richard said. “Our main focus is preservation and how to maintain the existing system because Michigan has been underfunded for decades. We’ve been ranked last in the country when it comes to maintaining roads and bridges.”

Another reconfiguration option that has been suggested in the past includes widening the interchange or putting the Wealthy Street exit underground. US-131 is so narrow that any widening will have a ripple effect, making it more complicated and expensive, Richard said. 

“It’s a lot of interchanges in a small space,” he said. “There are a lot of options out there that will be looked at.”

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