Detroit-area freeway pumps slowly get better 5 years after great flood

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
John Ladensack, left, supervisor of MDOT's Auburn Hills garage listens to Dennis Adams, MDOT maintenance mechanic for the Auburn Hills garage, as he talks about how the pumps operate.

Hidden below Metro Detroit's freeways is an intricate system of pump stations that keep water off the roads and traffic moving.

After years of describing this pump station system as being in largely "poor condition," the Michigan Department of Transportation is hopeful recent efforts to improve it to reduce roadway flooding will pay off as the stormy spring season approaches.

Millions have been spent on flood mitigation in Metro Detroit in recent years — with $13 million spent in 2017 and 2018 combined. The result is a system with workers who have more responsive technology to address problems as well as a power management system being put in place to keep the pumps running during severe storms.

"I’m not at the point yet where I feel we’ve eliminated the risk of water on the roadway," said Mia Silver, a region engineer for MDOT. "It’s not so much a cause-and-effect that because we’ve invested money, the problem is solved — just that it’s expected to be better."

About half of the state’s 166 pumping stations are still in poor condition, according to a state analysis. But that’s down from 58 percent in 2016.

MDOT has publicly stated its goal of getting 90 percent of the stations to "good" condition by 2035, but spokespeople for the organization have always couched that lawmakers, not administrators, determine road funding. 

Danny Costello, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, says massive rains are not uncommon in Metro Detroit, but they're usually a blip, confined to a small area. A 2014 flood, he said, was the exception.

On Aug. 11, 2014, Metro Detroit was hit with the second-rainiest day it had seen in almost a century, as 4.5 inches of rain fell on the region in a four-hour time span, causing flooding and closures on many of the region's freeways, including Interstates 75, 696, 94 and the Southfield and Lodge.

"Most of the time that’s one thunderstorm, one little pixel," Costello said. "(In 2014) it just happened to be in the worst area, at the worst time, that it could ever fall: On rush hour, over those freeways. It was bad timing, bad location and a heavy amount of rain. Put all three together and the chance of that occurring again, in that amount, is probably beyond a 1-in-1,000 chance."

Meteorologists can't say how likely a similar rain event is this spring; that can't be projected so far ahead. 

That the pump station system remains in poor condition, five years after massive floods in August 2014, comes as no surprise to Lance Binoniemi, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

"We’ve underinvested for decades in this state. We are getting what we paid for," Binoniemi said. "It’s not just roads and bridges. It’s waters and sewers and ports. It’s everything."  

These three vertical lifts are used to remove flood water from the freeway, pumping it to the Rouge River during a flooding event.

'I know my road's not flooded'

On the morning of Feb. 12, northbound I-75 was flooded at Eight Mile, requiring the closure of the freeway. 

Dennis Adams, a maintenance worker for MDOT, moved into action, firing up his laptop, and checking the software MDOT uses to monitor some of its pump stations remotely. All 140 pump stations in Metro Detroit will have it by year's end, Silver said, but only about one-third have it now. 

"I was on the east side working on another station," Adams recalled. "I look and see what my pump levels are. My pump levels were at 4.9 feet. So I know my road’s not flooded. (If it were), it would be reading 12, 20 feet depending on the station."

It didn't take long from there for Adams to realize that if the pumps didn't fail and weren't being overworked, something else had to be the culprit.

As it turns out, the problem was run-of-the-mill ice and slush.

"Rather than waiting for a call that the expressway is flooded, we can shorten that," explained Adams' supervisor, John Ladensack. "I’m getting (alerts) on my phone, Dennis is getting them on his phone. A lot of people are getting them on their phones. We can get on a call and get people out there. The response time is a lot quicker, to catch a problem before it actually floods."

The Road Commission for Oakland County was called in and bladed down the ice and slush that was clogging the drain system, and some more on I-696.

Problem solved. Traffic was moving again in about an hour.

This is the entrance to the subterranean River Rouge pump station located off I-696 westbound near Lasher in Southfield.

'You've got to move the water out'

Metro Detroit has about 40 percent of Michigan’s population, 40 percent of its drivers, and 40 percent of its freeway traffic — but 84 percent of the freeway pump houses used to keep roadways free of floodwaters.

That concentration, with 140 of the state’s 166 pump stations based in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, is necessary due to the below-ground nature of the local freeway system. 

The roads were designed to be below-ground to separate speedy traffic from neighborhoods and to reduce noise pollution.

Below-ground freeways were considered an innovation at one point, said Bruce Seely, a professor emeritus of history and technology at Michigan Technological University and a historian of the Interstate Highway System.

The Davison Freeway, now the M-8, was America's first depressed freeway when it opened in November 1942.

"This first section that they sunk below grade, that first mile, got huge attention as the future of high-speed highways," Seely said. "If you had these things below grade, they were less unsightly, and protected noise, and you restricted access and moved traffic with far fewer obstacles and impairments."

But, Seely said, "once you put a freeway below grade, you’ve got to move the water out. Any summer thunderstorm, you ran the risk of flooding."

Service drives were created to allow motorists access to neighborhoods, and neighborhoods access to freeways.

Enter pump stations, which move water from the low-ground of below-grade freeways to drainage systems or bodies of water on even lower ground. 

While the pump stations in Oakland and Macomb counties were built between the 1960s and 1980s, the pump stations in Wayne County date back to the early 1940s, Silver said. 

Pump station maintenance is crucial but only part of the flood mitigation equation, Silver said.

For instance, while MDOT spent about $2.8 million on pump station maintenance last year, it spent slightly more on cleaning and maintaining catch basins, and about $2 million sweeping freeways of debris. 

There were still 131 flood events on Metro Detroit freeways, with 90 of them taking place on just four freeways: the Southfield, I-96, I-94 and I-75. One freeway ramp alone, from northbound I-75 to I-94, had 12 flooding events.

Past-year roadway flood numbers were  not readily available.

The most frequent problem at pump stations is an electrical failure, Silver said.

Finding the power

MDOT has addressed that vulnerability by using backup generators and retrofitting pump stations.

“We have one generator that will run just about every single pump station we have,” Ladensack said. “The other one is a little smaller, and it’s a little more portable, and it will run most of them. (Adams) takes those home a lot of weekends when it’s supposed to rain.”

In Detroit, MDOT is converting pump stations' electrical service from the city’s Public Lighting Authority to DTE Energy, work that should wrap up late this year or early next.

Joe Bargero, a planning and engineering manager at DTE, said city and state officials decided it no longer made sense for the city’s lighting system to power those pump stations.

So from 2015 to 2018, 31 pump stations in Detroit were converted from public lighting to DTE electricity. Another eight are being converted now, Bargero said. 

That's in addition to the 24 Wayne and Oakland County pump stations that were retrofitted in fiscal year 2018 — 23 of them in Wayne County. DTE electrical upgrades are a part of the package every time a retrofit happens.

Despite it all, there are no guarantees, Silver said. Flood mitigation is not the same as flood risk elimination.

"But I do (think recent investments are) moving us in the right direction. We’re really glad to have funding to be able to get to it," Silver said. "We have more projects lined up than we have funding for."