MDOT: We’ll speed Oakland Co. I-75 project by 10 years

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Southfield — State transportation officials plan Monday to announce that the $1 billion Interstate 75 widening project in Oakland County, the first major road plan in Michigan to use a private investment model instead of state and federal money, could be completed up to 10 years sooner than planned.

The Michigan Department of Transportation’s 18-mile project to modernize the expressway between Hazel Park and Pontiac was part of a “pay as you go” plan designed to be financed entirely by public money.

Now that the state doesn’t have to come up with the money for the rehabilitation, which often results in publicly funded projects being done piecemeal, or pay as you go, the work initially envisioned to last until 2030 could be done as soon as 2020, transportation officials said.

By adopting a new design-build model, in which construction teams foot the cost of materials, construction and maintenance, officials expect to speed up the project, MDOT said. The first of eight segments of the project was completed last month between South Boulevard in Bloomfield Township and Coolidge Highway in Troy.

“The incentive is to do work on or ahead of schedule,” said MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi. “Future contracts will be dependent on performance and, of course, companies want to maintain a reputation for not only good work but work delivered as promised.”

The South Boulevard-Coolidge Highway segment took 108 days to complete and cost $91 million, primarily from federal funds.

“We opened the first stage on Sept. 1 and it was done under the design-build model,” Morosi said. “That’s why we were able to rebuild more than three miles in each direction, replace six bridges, realign the freeway and modernize the interchange at Square Lake (Road), all in such a short period of time because we used this innovative contracting method.”

The private-funding model would likely result in larger work zones for motorists but fewer years to deal with construction, said Morosi.

“This allows (contractors) to be able to purchase materials in bulk, hire subcontractors for longer projects and make other decisions,” said Morosi. “The state still provides oversight and control, but the team has more flexibility in doing their job.”

The team is given annual payments based on detailed conditions and performance, he said.

The design-build model is the current national trend in roadway projects. “This is the first time something like this will be done in Michigan,” said Morosi. “We expect it to be the way of the future.”

Ninety percent of the costs for the I-75 project involve rebuilding and widening the freeway to four lanes in each direction along the 18-mile stretch that crosses several suburbs. The added lanes will be designated for high-occupancy vehicles (two or more occupants) during peak hours. About 170,000 vehicles use the interstate daily, transportation officials say.

Reaction to news of the expedited timeline was positive from people like Troy Mayor Dane Slater, whose 86,000 residentshave been affected by the freeway project.

“If they can reduce construction time without costing taxpayers more, I’m all for it; it’s great,” said Slater. “Any time you have a big project, like on a freeway, it causes people to not only avoid an area but to seek other routes and streets to travel. Construction projects impact businesses and are a headache for motorists.

“Some days it seems that you can’t go anywhere without running into orange barrels,” Slater said. “For me, I’ll take a longer construction zone any day if it will help a project be completed in less time. I think most people feel that way.”

The widening of I-75 in Oakland County was long overdue, officials say. It was built in the 1960s, more than a half-century ago. At times, the three-lane freeway, once considered state of the art, has more often resembled a parking lot, with vehicle backups extending for miles due to accidents or lane closures.

“There are about 1,000 crashes each year on that 18-mile stretch,” said Morosi. “Most are rear-end collisions. This isn’t just a matter of speed and commuter convenience. This is a major safety issue.”

Royal Oak Mayor Michael Fournier remains unconvinced there is a need for the freeway widening. He was among those who opposed the plan and sees shortening the time of construction as “finding a way to take our tax dollars that much sooner.”

“I’ve always felt $1 billion could have been put to better use in public transportation,” said Fournier. “Why should government be subsidizing urban sprawl? We are in an age of autonomous cars, ride-share programs, mass transit systems and other technology, which could very well make freeway driving obsolete.

“Once again, this detracts and works to the detriment of older, inner-ring suburbs for the benefit of communities farther out. Is this what we want? I don’t feel very good about it at all.”

An 8.5-mile segment between Coolidge and 13 Mile will cost $350 million in state dollars, Morosi said. A 5.5-mile segment between 13 Mile and Eight Mile through Hazel Park, Madison Heights and Royal Oak will cost around $575 million, and come from private financing.

MDOT will begin issuing requests for qualifications this fall for contractors interested in partnering and building the project. Winning teams are expected to be selected in summer and fall of 2018, with construction schedules to be developed.

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