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Bacco Construction Partners with Michigan DOT to Reconstruct US 41

by: Larry Bernstein
Elements of the U.S. 41 reconstruction required Bacco Construction crews to excavate up to 20 feet below ground.
Elements of the U.S. 41 reconstruction required Bacco Construction crews to excavate up to 20 feet below ground.
Located on the Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the city of Houghton borders the Portage Canal. The city of approximately 8,500 people is the largest in the Keweenaw and home to Michigan Technological University (MTU). The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is in the middle of the U.S. 41 reconstruction in the area.

Founded in 1855, MTU is one of the top engineering schools in the state. The university has over 7,000 students and the majority are from Michigan. There are many dorms and rental houses in the area. The student population helps lead the city to have one of the highest pedestrian roadway volumes in the Upper Peninsula.

Part of the roadway along the project area was constructed in 1969 and another segment has not been reconstructed since 1976. The average daily traffic count along the 1.1-mile construction zone is in the 15,000-plus vehicles range. Around 2 to 3 percent of the traffic is commercial.

The Need for Replacement
The existing pavement along the project area is in poor condition. It has potholes and is a bumpy ride for drivers. Therefore, the team will be removing and replacing the pavement.

“We also took a look at roadway operations to improve it for both pedestrians and vehicles,” says Alan Anderson, a Construction Engineer with MDOT. The section of roadway includes three different areas. There was a piece of a boulevard with two travel lanes in each direction with segments of two-lane road on either side.

On one of the portions that have two lanes, the team is adding a center left-turn lane. In the current configuration, backups occur and there are elevated numbers of rear-end crashes. In the other two-lane area, the team is moving a merge to create space for a sidewalk facility. They are also repairing the poor pavement that already exists there.

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The final configuration involves removing a lane where U.S. 41 has four lanes. The new configuration will have two lanes and designated turn lanes at major intersections. In addition, the median is being widened to improve pedestrian flow and make it easier and safer to cross the street.

A separate part of the project involves putting in a new storm sewer and water main. The infrastructure in the area is up to 100 years old. The city is having this work done as a precautionary measure since the pavement will already be ripped up.

Excavation Challenges
The storm sewer and water main element require the team to dig 15 to 20 feet underground. Besides all the excavation this necessitates, it’s impacting the adjacent area. The team had to find a way to temporarily support the utilities so that they don't damage them.

“We put straps from power poles to support the existing utilities,” Andersen says. The other utilities in the area include a gas main, communication line, and sanitation line.

A second challenge the team is dealing with is the high traffic and pedestrian volumes while working in the area. The challenge is compounded by an adjacent MDOT repair project on the nearby Portage Lake Lift Bridge. “When the lift bridge is up or when the project shuts it down, it leads to backups from that project, which back into our U.S. 41 project,” Anderson says.

Unfortunately, there’s no alternate route. Routine bridge lifts for boat traffic can happen at any time and there’s little advance notice. As for scheduled bridge closures during the repair project, MDOT tries to communicate them in advance to keep delays to a minimum. While they have set up detours to help maintain traffic flow on the U.S. 41 project, there's only so much they can do about the delays when traffic backs up into the detour from the adjacent delay. This has led to some frustrations from the public.

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To avoid the excessive pedestrian traffic, the project is taking place from May to early September when school is not in session. Also, the team created safe crossing areas for pedestrians.

Working Through Staffing Issues
Bacco Construction, which is headquartered in the Upper Peninsula, is serving as the general contractor. They have completed many projects for MDOT over the years. “They are a good contractor and put forth a good effort,” says Anderson. “They have the equipment to go after big projects and get them done.”

For this project, putting together a crew has been a challenge. The project – which ran from May 2021 to September 2021 and is scheduled for a similar time frame in 2022 – ran into some workforce challenges in 2021. “Getting together a sufficient workforce in 2021 was challenging due to a lack of workers, and it was exacerbated by COVID-19,” Anderson says. This challenge put the team behind a few weeks, but they were able to make some adjustments and got done with the major work before students were back on campus.

The project has a $9.6 million construction budget. The city is putting up $2.5 million for the project, which they got via a rural loan from the USDA. Of the remaining project budget, the federal government is paying 80 percent and the state government is paying 20 percent. The project is on budget.

Upon completion, Houghton residents and MTU students will experience improved and safer pedestrian routes. As for the driving public, the new roadway surface will lead to a smoother ride.

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