August 27, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Michigan officials say flooded freeways may become more common

State highway officials blame a cocktail of factors for the repeated flooding of major Metro Detroit traffic arteries in recent weeks, and they’re making no promises that it won’t happen again.

An inch of rain that fell in parts of the region during the afternoon travel time swamped parts of several area freeways Tuesday — the third such occurrence this month.

“We’re always putting Band-Aids on what needs surgery,” MDOT spokeswoman Diane Cross said Wednesday. “We are piecemeal keeping our roads together. This is an example of what happens with that.”

The roads and supporting structures are aging; soil, plants and road debris have washed into and blocked drains, meaning flooding could become more common, she said. Furthermore, MDOT says 58 percent of freeway pump houses are in poor condition, which added to the difficulty of keeping below-grade highways free of massive ponds.

“We just need to realize that the freeways themselves are old and they aren’t designed to today’s standards, which include more storm drains, bigger storm drains, sloping sides that don’t allow soil and erosion into the roadway and drains,” Cross said.

MDOT employees are assessing catch basin drains, pumps and road conditions, but they do not have adequate money to fix them. There’s no indication that a logjam over highway funding is close to breaking after the state Senate rejected tax hikes that would have raised more than $1 billion for repairs.

Following an extremely harsh winter that busted road budgets, the state provided some additional money — $30 million — but it’s not enough, said Cross.

“This is what we mean when we talk about the need for funding,” she said. “Could we keep those catch basins clean every day? We could if we had enough money for that.”

On Tuesday, it was deja vu: Storms rolled in, rain fell down and Metro Detroit’s freeways began to flood at the height of the afternoon rush hour.

Some sections of Interstates 75 and 94, as well as the Lodge Freeway, were flooded until late evening. Metro Airport reported 0.55 inches of rain, but weather spotters in north Detroit and Grosse Pointe Farms reported 1.1 and 1.05 inches respectively.

Motorists expressed frustration over the repeated flooding.

“You would think if the system is all screwed up, maybe there should have been some road funding from the state months ago,” said Vaughn Derderian, co-owner of the Anchor Bar in downtown Detroit.

Derderian was on his way to work Tuesday afternoon when traffic screeched to a halt at the washed-out I-75/I-94 interchange. “I was two cars behind the flood ... somebody’s car was floating because they had tried to drive through it,” he said.

Sean Brown of Rochester Hills, who was delayed getting to the Tigers game at Comerica Park by flooding on I-75, said he’d be willing to pay more in taxes if that’s what it takes to keep the roads from flooding during rainstorms.

“I think rather than take the cheapest company to replace the roads, we should spend a little more so they can be repaired right and last longer,” he said.

Cross said Tuesday’s flooding and traffic backups were caused by a combination of specific events aggravated by existing infrastructure problems.

An accident during rush hour on I-96 shut down part of that freeway, diverting traffic onto other roads. At the same time, the rain began filling up low-lying areas on I-75 near the I-94 interchange to West Grand Boulevard and on I-94 between I-96 and Van Dyke. Adding to the problems, a pump station near I-94 and Gratiot failed after it lost power.

“By the time we determined that and could get a generator out there, we had hundreds of cars backed up and people had cars that needed to be towed out of water,” said Cross. “We also had our own crews searching the roads for catch basins to see if they were blocked.”

Trees were toppled and as many as 165,000 homes and businesses were without power. That number was pared to 30,000 customers late Wednesday. The hardest hit area was Wayne County, with 24,000 customers without power, while Oakland County had about 5,000, DTE said.

“DTE crews are working 16-hour shifts around the clock to restore service,” DTE spokesman Scott Simons said. “Approximately 110 additional crews from Michigan, Ohio and Indiana are arriving today to assist in the restoration effort.”

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A state trooper pushes a van on Tuesday through flooded sections of southbound Interstate 75 under Grand Boulevard in Detroit. / David Guralnick / The Detroit News
A state employee works to clear the drain in the westbound lanes of ... (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)