MDOT faces off with township residents on I-75 expansion

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published June 27, 2016


BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — Communities in southern Oakland County have been voicing concerns over the coming Interstate 75 modernization project ever since Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson expressed his support back in February.

But in Bloomfield Township, residents came out last week to tell the Michigan Department of Transportation they’re upset too — not about what’s planned, but instead over what isn’t planned.

The big picture
Oakland County Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub, R-District 12, hosted an update meeting at the Bloomfield Township offices June 21. National Project Operations Manager Barb Arens, of Parsons Brinckerhoff civil engineering, walked the standing-room-only crowd through the highway-widening project, which is expected to kick off in late August.

The whole project will cover 18 miles of I-75, from South Boulevard to Eight Mile. Drivers can expect improved drainage, updated pavement with a thicker layer of concrete to make for sturdier roads, and a quieter neighborhood for those nearby.

Through the township, entrance and exit ramps will be reconstructed on the right-hand side. The right-on/right-off ramps should make for safer merging and reduce congestion.

Also planned in hopes of easing congestion during peak hours is a new high-occupancy vehicle lane added in each direction. From 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. daily, the HOV lane, or carpool lane, as it’s also known, will be reserved for vehicles with multiple passengers. During off-peak hours, the lane can be used by anyone.

“The carpool lanes encourage people to do it. What other states have found is that you find the best corridor and you install a carpool lane,” said Arens. “I would say as far as carpooling, Michigan is trying to catch up with the other states, personally.”

The whole 18-mile stretch will be completed in sections, wrapping up in 2030 — a period almost as long as it took to study and create an environmental impact statement for the project. The planning for the expansion began in 1992.

“(We’re going to) reconstruct everything. It’s basically going to have everything from the pavement, the interchanges, the bridges, the drainage system. Everything will be replaced so it will be nice and new,” Arens explained.

Work on the interstate can only take place every other year, beginning this summer, since federal and state funds would be allocated to Interstate 94 in odd years.

The good news is that the northernmost section of the plan, from South Boulevard to Coolidge Highway in Troy — a 3-mile stretch that runs through the township —  is the first up to be completed. That portion alone will cost $127.4 million. The total project costs $1.3 billion.

Much ado about noise
The price tag wasn’t what seemed to upset residents during the meeting, though. Arens had the difficult task of telling the crowd that noise studies were conducted along the corridor from 2003 to 2005 and again from 2014 to 2016. The results? Based on federal criteria, no new noise walls will be built.

That’s a deal breaker, according to the crowd, which complained that since trees were cleared from the side of I-75 earlier this year in preparation for the construction, road noise has become a major problem.

“What (Arens) just said does not pass muster with me, because the noise is quite substantial today in my neighborhood in Fox Hills (compared) to six months ago,” said resident Art Mohr. “The problem that I have is not the construction — go ahead with it. The problem I have is how you’ve gone forward and constructed this. In other words, you’ve gone ahead without concern of mitigating noise in my neighborhood today, which is going to be that way for 10 years because (you’re planting new) trees that will take many years to grow, and you’re talking about increasing traffic by adding a lane.”

Karen Mellott lives in the Heathers condo complex along I-75, at Square Lake and Squirrel roads. She said that since the mature trees were taken out, the noise in her home has noticeably increased.

“The construction is something we know can’t be stopped, and in the long run it’ll be fine. But the noise has tripled in places in my condo I’ve never had it before,” Mellott said. “In the back, we knew that the noise was there. Now we can hear it at the front part of the house, where we’ve never had any noise.”

Plans B and C
Sue Datta, MDOT I-75 senior project manager, said the option to install noise walls is out of her hands, and she said if residents feel strongly, they can fundraise and build their own walls.

“Thanks for having us, (but) we are here to update on the I-75 project,” Datta said in response to complaints. “We aren’t hiding anything. We’ve met with you before. It’s not taking off a couple inches of pavement. This is going to be brand new, like it was over 55 years ago. It should be less noisy, and I’ve said this to everyone before. I don’t know what you can do besides building your own wall and finding a way to pay for your own wall.”

Goodman Taub added that she’s been talking to Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie to figure out what steps can be taken next on the noise issue.

“We don’t give up. The studies were done before the trees were cut,” she said in response to a question on whether the noise study was skewed because it was done before the mature trees along the stretch — which acted as a noise barrier — were removed.

“The studies were done before the trees were cut, but we believe the project should go through. And then we’re going to ask the federal government to fund another study.”

The price of progress
News — or lack thereof — of a new noise wall caused an uproar with the crowd, with many shouting at the MDOT presenters and others walking out of the room.

Some even asked if the work was even necessary at all — what with additional congestion, cut-through traffic in residential areas and other headaches. Arens said she hopes drivers will be “courteous” to residents, and those headaches are sometimes the price you pay for a little bit of progress.

Another in the crowd asked why I-75 is a priority, since the Regional Transit Authority will likely seek to add mass transit options to metro Detroit in the near future.

“RTA doesn’t mitigate the need for I-75 work,” Arens explained. “This part of the (interstate), in my opinion only, is coming of age. You cannot let it become gravel.”

Goodman Taub reminded the group that the Square Lake interchange saw more than 600 accidents within five years — 330 northbound and 275 southbound — and insisted that the work is necessary to improve safety.

One resident asked how many of those accidents were fatal. When Goodman Taub said none resulted in deaths, another outburst from the crowd was heard with “well, there you go” and “fender benders.”

Township Trustee and current candidate for treasurer Brian Kepes said he knows firsthand, though, how dangerous the area can be.

“I had my first accident there when I was 16, taking a left onto Square Lake off 75,” he said. “But this is a different situation. I’m not affected by the noise, but I understand what the residents here are saying.”