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Traffic delays along the two largest construction projects in Metro Detroit are expected to ease next month after being delayed earlier this year by a labor dispute, according to state transit officials.

The Michigan Department of Transportation told The Detroit News that Interstate 696 in Macomb County between I-94 and I-75 could reopen for westbound traffic by early January if the weather holds up.

“There will be lane closures needed in the spring to complete some work,” MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said.

Meanwhile, I-75 between Clark and Springwells, north of the Rouge River bridge, could be open by mid-January.

“One northbound lane will remain closed through the winter,” Cranson said of the multi-year Rouge River project. “Some work will resume in the spring but with minimal impact on traffic.”

The projects were delayed in September when the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association instituted a work stoppage after multiple failed attempts to bargain a new contract with the Operating Engineers Local 324. A prior, five-year deal expired in June. 

“The crews have worked hard to make up for time lost to the lockout,” Cranson said.

MITA represents hundreds of companies who contract to build state roads and bridges, water and sewer systems and utilities.

“They’re making very good progress, and the reprieve in the weather this winter has been most helpful,” MITA Vice President Mike Nystrom said. “As we said earlier in the year, sometimes we get winter to hold off until very late or early in the new year.”

The construction rift prompted the shutdown or partial halt of 89 MDOT projects and 75 local projects.

Gov. Rick Snyder was able to break the stalemate between the parties with a short-term agreement through the end of the 2018 construction season. The union and contractors association will use professional mediators throughout the winter to help negotiate a new contract, according to Snyder. 

“There was an agreement between the contractors and the governor’s office to try to get as much work done as possible,” Nystrom said. “The agreement was worked out, and it turned out as we hoped it would.”

Dan McKernan, spokesman for Operating Engineers Local 324, was equally pleased, and said, ordinarily, the main challenge would have been the weather.

“We’ve been pretty lucky that we haven’t had a significant snowfall this year,” he said. “Last year at this time, we would have already had a few snowfalls. Everything gets more difficult when there’s snow because when the temperatures fall below freezing, it affects the way cement cures.”

McKernan noted road workers have put in more hours and weekends than in previous years "to get things done" following the work stoppage.

“It never was our intent to be going this late into the season,” he said. “Our members take immense pride, and they worked very hard. That is part of why when things happened in September, it was so upsetting.”

McKernan added of the I-696 and I-75 projects: “These were two projects that were not just nice to have, they were must-haves.”

The spring season typically starts in April or May, meaning the union and contractors association will have several months to negotiate a long-term deal after crews complete work without a contract.

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