Interchange Design Being Reviewed

May 28, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — An I-96 interchange that has been a decades-long dream to ease 28th Street traffic is approaching reality this year.

Property acquisition for the 36th Street interchange is underway and the project's design, done by URS, is awaiting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Presuming FAA approves the design, preparatory detour construction would begin this year, with actual work on the interchange itself starting in 2005 and likely winding up in 2006.

According to Sean N. Keisch, the engineer who is URS's project manager for the interchange, FAA's jurisdiction arises from two factors: First, because the work will take place in the environs of Gerald R. Ford International Airport and, second, because all the land needed for the project belongs to the airport.

Keisch advised that Kent County already has begun construction in the interchange's companion project, the 36th Street extension. Currently, 36th ends at Kraft Avenue, not quite a half mile west of I-96.

He said he understands that constructing the artery's extension — which bends southeast to Thorneapple River Drive — entails a budget of about $10 million, while the estimated cost of the interchange itself, his baby, is nearly $28 million.

He said construction for the interchange will affect about two miles of I-96 roadway and will require four free-flow ramps.

Once the interchange is complete, he said, it will relieve 28th Street of substantial amounts of airport truck traffic, plus a good deal of auto traffic.

The interchange will have no direct link to the airport.

"Maybe that might happen some day," he said, "but not now."

Instead, traffic will proceed as it does now from the airport west on 44th Street and north on Patterson. But instead of heading to 28th Street as is currently the case, traffic to I-96 then would turn east on 36th and, from there, to I-96 via the new interchange.

Keisch and Theresa Petko, manager of surface transportation for Grand Rapids' URS office, said three factors have made the design project for the interchange a particular challenge.

First, due to its proximity to the airport, the interchange's vertical clearances are an important issue. If too elevated above surrounding features, objects in an airport's approaches such as overpasses can distort Instrument Landing System signals upon which airliners rely.

Thus, the project design requires excavation to lower the level of access ramps so that it wouldn't be necessary to raise the highway overpasses above FAA tolerances.

The same concern about elevations, Keisch explained, requires that during construction contractors will have to be careful about raising cranes too far and will be required to install flashing beacon lights at their tips.

The second challenge has been that the area designated for the interchange involves some dramatic land contours and some environmentally sensitive flora — the endangered Compass Plant — that the designers had to skirt to protect.

Finally, the design work — which normally would operate on a 12- to 18-month timeline — had to be compressed sharply to about nine months.

That arose from the project's off-again, on-again status. A year ago, state budget concerns led the administration in Lansing to cancel all new highway construction, and to focus instead strictly upon maintenance.

But then, thanks to a compromise between the Legislature and the governor, the 36th Street Interchange was given new life last autumn.

And Keisch said that put design work for one of the biggest MDOT projects on this side of the state into overdrive.

"This isn't as big as M6 or the S-Curve," he said, "but it's big. And because people thought for so long that it wasn't going to happen, we had to start in mid- to late November last year.

"Fortunately, MDOT has given us a tremendous amount of cooperation," he said.

He explained that, as always is the rule with such projects, MDOT has its own project manager with whom the contract project manager works closely.

The design work, he told the Business Journal, had to be tentative until after all the data rolled in from site topographical surveys, environmental inventories, drainage studies and soil borings, crafting the environmental impact statement, and so forth.

He said he spent much of autumn and the winter and this spring at the site with firms that were pulling together the information.

"After we got all the data," he said, "we were able to work up a 3-D model on computer that included the 16-foot, 3-inch clearances that trucks need. And then we mapped it with longitude and latitude in relation to the airport."

Because the interchange is going to function as a kind of gateway to Grand Rapids, Petko stressed that it also is to be dressed up a bit so that its structures won't have the look of naked concrete.

She said that in the manner of work on the S-Curve, the design calls for earth-tone dyes in the concrete along with forms that emboss designs into the concrete.    

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