The unusual and innovative wide bridge covered in soil has had persistent drainage problems.
Looking east from Church Street north of 10 Mile Road, you can see a gleaming playground. Around the playground is a wide grass-covered field with curved paved walkways shaded by low trees. You could enjoy this bucolic scenery without suspecting that a major highway runs right beneath your feet. You are standing on an exceptionally wide bridge, an overpass of the I-696 freeway, but it feels like standing in a park.
That feeling is no accident; it is a feat of civil and social engineering.
Fifty years ago, the planned route for the new freeway would rip through the heart of the Jewish neighborhood centered in Oak Park. In 1979, activists challenged the government to accommodate the needs of its Orthodox Jewish community. They needed connectivity. Observant Jews from either side of the highway needed to get to the other side easily, on foot, every festival and Shabbat. The highway threatened to destroy one or both sides of the neighborhood.
The wide overpass, opened in 1988, solved that social problem beautifully and continues to do so. The Jewish community has not abandoned this neighborhood. On any Shabbat, families stroll from one side to the other of Victoria Park. Parents sit on benches around the playground and watch their children at play.
The civil engineering solution has not lasted as well. The unusual and innovative wide bridge covered in soil, has had persistent drainage problems. An extensive remodel of the bridge covering, undertaken in 2016, did not end the problem. In the winter, icicles hang down from the underside of the bridge, threatening to fall onto the traffic below.
At a virtual public meeting on Thursday, Nov. 18, presenter Matt Chynoweth, chief bridge engineer at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), explained that the bridge “is not dangerous, but that it is reaching the end of its useful life.”
Chynoweth explained that the process of demolishing and rebuilding will take place in segments so pedestrians and motorists will still be able to get from one side to the other even during the construction, anticipated to last from 2024-2025.
Monica Monsma, public involvement and hearings officer of MDOT, opened the meeting by stressing that MDOT wishes to gather as much input as possible from the public in the process of designing the replacement bridge.
Jeff Pitt, senior contracts engineer at MDOT and project manager, explained the constraints on designing the replacement bridge. Some of the bridge will need to have the more traditional model of concrete over the superstructure. He asked his audience to consider where, in addition to the parking lot, concrete could be placed without hurting the aesthetics of the bridge. Perhaps a section with vertical elements providing shade and picnic tables below? Would grills be allowed? Or put in fitness stations?
Pitt also stated that many of the amenities can be salvaged and reused, such as the lighting and playground equipment that was upgraded in 2016. The National Environmental Policy Act gave clearance to the original bridge after considering how it would mitigate damage to the community from the construction of the freeway. The project must accommodate intended uses in the original NEPA clearance.
To that end, the project manager is asking the general public for input on what is working and what can be improved?
Input into the design process can be made through a link to an online comments form: forms.office.com/g/4vbzHQ0cQR.
Title VI of the 1965 Civil Rights Act requires that Michigan give everyone the opportunity to comment on transportation projects. Here is a link to the Title VI survey: forms.office.com/g/DDBmu3U9Ka
Interested parties can also attend future meetings. Monsma explained that this virtual meeting was the first of an anticipated round of six meetings to gather input from the public and from stakeholders.
Jeff Pitt added that the MDOT leadership could schedule even more meetings if that seems useful.