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Michigan DOT Relocates US 31 in Berrien County

by: Debra Wood
Crews place a culvert for drainage next to I-94.
Crews place a culvert for drainage next to I-94.
Crews place a culvert for drainage next to I-94 during the U.S. 31 relocation project.
Crews place a culvert for drainage next to I-94 during the U.S. 31 relocation project.
Crews work on a bridge while traffic flows below on I-94.
Crews work on a bridge while traffic flows below on I-94.
Crews grading for an auxiliary lane.
Crews grading for an auxiliary lane.
Crews built a roundabout on the I-94 Business Loop.
Crews built a roundabout on the I-94 Business Loop.
Work takes place on a bridge foundation.
Work takes place on a bridge foundation.
Aiming to provide easier travel in the southwest portion of the state, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has undertaken the U.S. 31 Relocation project to connect with Interstate 94.

“About 39 million tons of commodities move between Indiana and Michigan on I-94 and U.S. 31,” says Kenton McAndrew, Construction Engineer with MDOT. “The connection is important from a regional standpoint for the economic impact it brings.”

I-94, built in the late 1950s, was ready for an upgrade, and U.S. 31 had never been completed. This project will finish the last couple of miles from Napier Avenue to I-94. MDOT has had plans for this project for more than 40 years. About 50,000 vehicles drive on I-94 daily.

The project hit a snag in 2004, when the Blue Creek Fen – a wetland within the original project’s parameters – was identified as a unique resource. The wetland is home to the Mitchell’s satyr butterfly and a bat, both endangered species. MDOT changed the alignment to avoid the fen and butterfly. Additionally, some wetlands were affected by the project and mitigated through preserving wetlands outside of the project boundaries.

MDOT received a $20 million federal Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant in 2018, enabling the department to start the work. “That allowed us to put the wheels in motion,” McAndrew says.

Additional funding of $94 million came from the Rebuilding Michigan program. That $3.5 billion bonding program invests in 122 major rehabilitation projects on the state’s roads and bridges.

“The Rebuilding Michigan Plan puts Michigan drivers first by building up our economy stronger for communities and small businesses and helping families stay safe on the road as they drive to work, pick their kids up from school, and run errands,” said Governor Gretchen Whitmer in a statement. “Investments in infrastructure are a priority for my administration, and I am proud that we are fixing the damn roads without an increase at the gas pump.”

Once the work is complete in 2023, Indiana’s Interstate 80/Interstate 90 toll road will connect with U.S. 31/Interstate 196 and I-94 in Michigan.

Choosing Design-Build
“This is a new freeway alignment, and we don’t build new roads a lot in southwest Michigan,” McAndrew says. “It’s a design-build project and we don’t do a lot of those.”

McAndrew explains that the department opted for design-build, because it would be faster, nearly half the time of a traditional design-bid-build project.

“It was a couple of years faster,” McAndrew says. “Design-build also allows for innovation. The contractor can choose what he does best, and it opens the door to different things.”

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An example of innovation on this project was the use of mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) retaining walls for the bridge abutments.

The $121.5 million project includes reconstruction of 3.5 miles of I-94, adding auxiliary lanes between U.S. 31 and I-196, constructing four replacement bridges, rehabilitating one bridge over I-94, building 1.8 miles of new freeway for U.S. 31, changing the configuration of the interchange at I-94 and U.S. 31, adding a roundabout and reconfiguring the I-94 Business Loop, and removing three bridges. All of the bridges are over roads and have new pile-support foundations, MSE wall abutments and prestressed concrete I-beams.

Time is a Factor
MDOT awarded the design-build contract to a joint venture among three Michigan firms D.J. McQuestion & Sons of Leroy; Hardman Construction of Ludington; J&N Construction, an excavating firm in Gaylord, in March of 2020. Benesch of Lansing, Michigan, is the design partner.

“This was very challenging, mainly because it was a design-build project on such a large scope of work,” says Tom Peplinski, Vice President of McQuestion. “Time is a big factor on jobs like these.”

The team had responsibility for utility relocations.

Crews are completing approximately 1.5 million cubic yards of earth excavation, placing 700,000 cubic yards of embankments and 300,000 cubic yards of subbase, placing 300,000 tons of hot mix asphalt, and recycling approximately 150,000 tons of concrete from the pavement removal operations, Peplinski reports.

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“We had to develop a set of plans that was complete enough to come up with quantities for us and all the subcontractors to use and bid the project with some comfort level and still be competitive in June of 2020,” Peplinski says.

“I am managing the overall project, and McQuestion and J&N are working as a team on all the earthwork, underground and grading items,” Peplinski explains. “Hardman is building three new bridges, and we have another subcontractor – Milbocker & Sons of Allegan, Michigan – who is constructing one new bridge.”

“This is a very large and spread out project,” McAndrew says. “The number of cranes on site is something to see.”

Construction started in August 2020. That year, the contractors built a roundabout on I-94 Business Loop at Crystal Avenue and reconstructed I-94 Business Loop. They also cleared trees to make way for U.S. 31. The new freeway passes through farm fields and wooded areas. Crews cleared more than 100 acres.

“We then had to have basically the majority of our plans completed and approved in March/April 2021 in order to start on I-94 and U.S. 31 this past spring,” Peplinski says.

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In 2021, crews built all of the bridges, reconstructed the westbound lanes of I-94, are building four cul-de-sacs adjacent to highways I-94 and U.S. 31, placed culverts and underdrains, and graded the U.S. 31 freeway. The joint venture team is using GPS machine grading along with total station for fine grading.

“I-94 westbound work this year was probably the most challenging,” Peplinski says. “The roadway portion was only about 3.5 miles long, but it was cut up into many segments.”

The team has shifted traffic to the eastbound lanes. The contractor must keep two lanes of traffic in each direction open on I-94. The I-196 Southbound Ramp along with about 1,000 feet of I-94 had to be constructed in about six weeks and opened by Memorial Day weekend.

“The I-196 Northbound Ramp with about 2,500 feet of I-94 also had to be constructed in about a six-week window and was opened by Labor Day weekend,” Peplinski says. “There were also four large culverts that were spread out through this section and had to be constructed part width.”

The culverts ranged from about 12-feet to 25-feet deep and required sheeting with tiebacks. There were also two other box culverts, one on U.S. 31 and one on the I-94 Business Loop. McQuestion and J&N did the box culvert work, while Hardman did all the sheeting and tiebacks. The other halves of these four culverts will be placed next year when eastbound I-94 is constructed, Peplinski says.

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Next year, the team plans to reconstruct the eastbound lanes of I-94, finish building the U.S. 31 and I-94 interchange, reconstruct the final two ramps at the I-196 interchange, and complete the construction and paving of U.S. 31.

“Another challenging factor has been getting good help and materials,” Peplinski says. “We have experienced delays and shortages on materials due to COVID-19. It is getting harder for all construction companies to find qualified operators in this industry. This makes things more difficult on a project of this magnitude. Also, subcontractors seem to be really busy with all the work out there and scheduling them early is key.”

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