Migrating Political Clout Paved M-6

January 14, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — At least as far as West Michigan is concerned, one could say that the newly completed South Beltline — also known as M-6 and the Paul Henry Freeway — is the cherry atop MDOT's birthday cake.

That's because — with the advent of 2005 coming less than two months after opening the freeway — MDOT is celebrating its centennial.

But to many drivers locally — especially long-time residents living south of town who've had to negotiate years of back-ups and construction delays — the opening of the freeway seemed like something of a centennial, too.

Not to mention a much-appreciated gift.

Indeed, the smoothing of the daily commute for tens of thousands of area workers is what makes the opening of M-6 one of the top 10 newsmakers of 2004.

And it was a long, long time in coming.

Appropriations for the $700 million freeway began working their way through the legislature in 1999, exactly 20 years after the idea for the freeway was first conceived.

The conceptual proposal for the freeway came mid-way during the Milliken administration, but for years its funding ran afoul of competing projects with higher MDOT priorities in WayneCounty and its environs.

Much has changed since then. Perhaps most important among the changes have been two profound shifts in Michigan's political and economic centers of gravity.

The 1990 census — with refined results becoming available a year later — revealed that West Michigan, centered on KentCounty, was the fastest-growing region of the state in terms of population and commerce. And that data brought about a change in legislative reapportionment that found Southeast Michigan losing representation and West Michigan gaining it.

Moreover, with the consequent change of political balance in Lansing, it was becoming ever clearer that an economically surging KentCounty was outgrowing its transportation infrastructure.

One consequence of that realization — together with bigger political muscles — was the approval of funding that cleared the way for preparation construction in 2000 and then the 2001 ground-breaking for M-6.

Another little matter, the reconstruction of U.S. 131's S-curve, got underway at almost the same time.

The M-6 project originally was to take seven years, but then was accelerated by awarding contracts for simultaneous work on its second and third phases

Phase I extended from I-96 west to

Broadmoor Avenue
. Phase II extended from
Broadmoor Avenue
to U.S. 131, while Phase III filled in the segment from U.S. 131 to I-196.

The project also included reconstruction of 4.5 miles of U.S. 131 on either side of the M-6 interchange. And the bases for entrance and exit ramps for the U.S. 131 interchange alone required 3 million cubic meters of fill.

The project also entailed construction of 28 new bridges and 18 retaining walls, not to be confused with 13,500 square feet of sound walls to reduce the impact of traffic noise on adjoining neighborhoods.     

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