Photo: Arielle Breen/News Advocate
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series taking a detailed look at the M-55 bridge re-construction project in Manistee County. We will focus on environmental aspects of the project; who is paying for the construction; timeline and the process of rebuilding a bridge; why the detour route was chosen as well as ripple effects from the detour; and other MDOT bridges in Manistee County.
MANISTEE — While the M-55 bridge construction project is underway, the traffic has to go somewhere.
Much of that traffic is being rerouted through Stronach Township and the residents and local leaders have noticed a difference in the flow of traffic and other impacts to the township of about 800 residents.
The M-55 detour takes traffic that would normally go through the southern part of Manistee Township and directs motorists largely through Stronach Township and part of Filer Township.
It is expected to last through November and surrounding areas are already noticing the impacts.
Phil Vadeboncoeur, Stronach Township supervisor, said before the detour took effect, the township’s concerns centered on increased traffic in certain areas.
“The concerns were about the increased traffic down through the (community) of Stronach along Stronach Road and also along Water Street down here. We’re trying to figure out how to cope with the increased traffic and so far this winter we’ve noticed a great increase in traffic coming down through the village here.”
He said part of the effort to alleviate the issues led to a three-way stop being implemented at the area of the township near the southeastern part of Manistee Lake at Water Street and Stronach Road.
In another point of the detour on U.S. 31 and Stronach Road there were some reported near-miss traffic crashes at a three-way stop. That three-way stop setup was scrapped after the appearance of the signs caused issues, according to the Manistee County Sheriff Brian Gutowski.
“The very first day that it was in place, they had put the stop signs on U.S. 31 and Stronach Road and that caused confusion for motorists and prompted many, many calls to our office and central dispatch about people running those stop signs and MDOT has removed those now which has made the situation better,” Gutowski said. “With anything, when you change up a major traffic flow like that, there are going to be issues. … You drive the same route every day. People don’t think that just one day … that there’s just going to be a stop sign there one day.”
There was also a stop sign set up installed on M-55 and Stronach Road where there had previously been no stopping for M-55 cross traffic.
“Now, there is a three-way stop to help control the traffic but the amount of traffic that is coming down through the (community) here is quite extensive right now,” Vadeboncoeur said.
In Stronach, speed limits are between 25 to 45 mph depending on the stretch of roadway.
Another issue seen in part of the township is that motorists have frequently been speeding through the residential areas along the detour.
But Vadeboncoeur said placing a radar speed sign in the area may do more harm than good.
“It’s kind of hard to get traffic speed limit signs out here … because you’ve got snow and salt on the roads and everything else,” he said. “It would be more of a hazard to have one of those (radar speed) signs on the (community’s) streets … from the county sheriff’s department than it would help.”
Gutowski said the sheriff’s office has increased patrols in the area as much as possible.
While most of what had been seen by deputies were offenses like drivers speeding, these were also points that had been anticipated before the project started.
He encouraged drivers to plan ahead and add time to their commute as well as stay vigilant while driving the detour route.
Vadeboncoeur said even though they have had more police presence since the detour, it seems like many motorists simply know when the deputies are present and when they are free to speed.
“When they’re not around (the drivers) are over the speed limit quite a bit. Especially down on Water Street where the township park is. They go through there at a pretty good clip,” he said.
He said while he has had some complaint phone calls about the issues mentioned above, “things are going fairly smooth.”
WHAT WILL SUMMER HOLD?
But Vadeboncoeur said the next concern is looking ahead to the summer when “it’s going to be practically bumper to bumper coming through here.”
“It is going to be one heck of a mess come summer time, and still there’s not a whole heck of a lot more we can do about it until summer time,” Vadeboncoeur said.
He said the township reached out to the Manistee County Sheriff’s Office and Manistee County Road Commission as well as others to see what could be done to alleviate “some of the headache down here in the area of the village.”
He added that village residents were having difficulty getting onto main roadways.
Another point made by Vadeboncoeur is that there are heavy trucks using side streets in an effort to avoid the extra stop signs.
“That’s something that the township and the county road commission is going to have to work on down the road if it becomes a problem,” he said.
James Lake, Michigan Department of Transportation’s North Region communications representative, said another aspect to remember is that sometimes drivers choose alternate routes outside of the prescribed detour in an effort to avoid the detour.
But, he said the detours are intentionally directing motorists to a route that organizers “are confident can handle that additional traffic.”
Additionally, there is also going to be construction on Eastlake Road and Vadeboncoeur sees that having a compounding impact on the overall situation.
“That road is going to be under construction this summer as well,” he said. “So, that’s going to be a little bit of a headache there. … That’s another thing we have to be wary of is the delayed traffic as far as traffic goes up through Eastlake Road. That’s all going to contribute to more traffic coming down through Stronach Road and through the village.”
According to previous News Advocate reports, a grant application was approved for $375,000 intended for a resurfacing project planned to begin in 2021 on Eastlake Road.
The road resurfacing project is estimated to cost a total of $860,000 for fiscal year 2021 and will span from Fourth Avenue to M-55.
One of the biggest concerns stemming from the bridge closure centers around emergency response efforts for incidents that require assistance from EMS, fire and police.
Vadeboncoeur said the other issues like increased traffic are especially going to compound existing difficulties for emergency responders in the summer.
“We really are trying to figure out what the best way to handle emergency situations as far as our fire department and rescue personnel go with the increased traffic up through here,” he said.
Vadeboncoeur also pointed to its northern neighboring township and how it factors in with emergency response situations.
“Brown Township is under contract with Manistee Township to provide fire and emergency services (in a timely basis),” he said.
Since it would be difficult with the current bridge project for Manistee Township to provide those services to Brown Township, Stronach Township was asked if it would sign a contract to provide services to part of Brown Township when needed.
Vadeboncoeur said the township did not want to sign a contract but that it did plan to provide those services.
Instead, he said that since there is already a countywide mutual aid agreement between the different fire and rescue services that means the township would provide services.
He said that “for the duration of the construction period, I have been reassured by our fire chief that it would be almost like an automatic (response) if we’re toned out, we’re going to go.”
With the way mutual aid would work, he said Eastlake Fire and Rescue may end up being the primary response team in some cases and ahead of Stronach Township in terms of who responds.
On a broader scale, Gutowski said the sheriff’s office and other emergency responders have teamed up to try their best to offset the impacts of the detour holistically to emergency response times by working together and placing response teams at different locations.
Part of this meant rerouting and positioning ambulances, police and fire response efforts in the county.
“We’re doing our best to keep people on the other side as much as we can to shorten those response times and try to work those problem areas as much as we can during the day. But unfortunately, we don’t have staffing to maintain (a deputy) there 24/7,” Gutowski said.
According to conversations during previous Manistee County Public Safety Committee meetings prior to the detour going into effect, emergency response leaders collaborated with each emergency response entity in the area as well as some in Mason County to better have a collaborative effort overall.
Paul Owens, operations manager with Mobile Medical Response in Manistee County, said the bridge project has impacted response times in some areas.
“Really, the Stronach area, the southern part of the county has been one area that we’ve seen a little longer response times on, because of the bridge closure,” Owens said. “So, if (in) Manistee right by the hospital happens to be out, we’re trying to move that ambulance that’s in Kaleva which is repositioning itself when it needs to so that we can reduce those response times due to the bridge closure.”
MMR used to be North Flight EMS in Manistee County until it merged in December to be MMR services in the area instead.
Owens said leadership with then North Flight had been part of the discussions early on with other responder agencies and was instrumental in figuring out methods of positioning ambulances to provide services during the bridge closure.
But places like Norman Township have seen longer response times due to the project.
“Normally, they take M-55. Now, they have to divert and go down through Stronach to get to the hospital,” he said. “It’s quite a lengthy delay but there’s not much we can do about it. There’s not anything we can do about it, just try to shift trucks when we can and we have been doing that.”
Lake with MDOT, said the department has been working with first responders as best as it can.
PIECES IN THIS SERIES