This week, I participated in a follow-up meeting with representatives from the University to discuss plans for improvements to the E. Medical Center bridge. The University has committed millions of dollars toward this project: 50% of the cost of rebuilding and 100% of the cost of widening this bridge. Council approval of DC-4 last week was important in order to preserve this funding toward improvement of the bridge currently classified in “poor condition.”
On October 18, 2021, Council approved plans for improvement of this bridge, including a Council amendment with additional conditions:
DC-1 (21-1442) Resolution to Approve a Professional Services Agreement with DLZ Michigan, Inc. for Engineering Design Services for the E. Medical Center Drive Bridge Rehabilitation and Widening Project ($1,011,319.29) (RFP 21-20)
On Feb 7, 2022, Council approved an amendment to these plans, removing conditions added by Council in October:
DC-4 (22-0254) Resolution to Amend R-21-395 Approving a Professional Services Agreement with DLZ Michigan, Inc. for Engineering Design Services for the E. Medical Center Drive Bridge Rehabilitation and Widening Project
The plans presented in October were the result of at least two years of collaboration between City staff and the University. At the table, a majority of Council approved an amendment to that work, which would have eliminated any expansion of vehicular access into the UM medical center. The October amendment created a condition that “The final design will utilize the additional width and capacity to facilitate and encourage multimodal travel (e.g. transit, carpool, bike).” I did not support this amendment.
The original plans – prior to Council amendment in October – included a vehicular turn lane into the medical center and a reallocation of the space available to pedestrians and cyclists, based on data. Below is an attachment to the Feb 7th Legistar item showing the project as originally proposed. I have highlighted the proposed exit lane with an orange dotted line.
Here I have zoomed in to show the bridge more clearly. As noted in the drawing, the intersection at Fuller Road would continue to be 4 lanes wide – this would not be expanded.
Below is a comparison of the existing (top) and proposed (bottom) lanes and sidewalks. In the existing bridge, both the west (left side) and east (right side) sidewalks are 10’6″ wide. In the proposed plans, the west sidewalk would be reduced to 8’0″, and the east sidewalk would be expanded to a 14’6″ shared-use pathway for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Since the the October amendment to those plans, the University stated clearly that it would withdraw its financial support of this project if the City did not permit widening to allow the vehicular turn lane. The conditions added by Council in October were unacceptable and if those conditions stayed in place the University would back out of a funding agreement worth millions.
This week, Council voted to remove the conditions. At the table, a member of Council (the same member who had offered the unacceptable conditions originally) offered an amendment proposing that the City hold firm in opposition to the turn lane. Her amendment demanded further expansion of sidewalks, and proposed that the City move forward with improvements with or without financial support or cooperation from the University. That amendment failed in a close vote; Council ultimately voted in support of the original plans (without conditions).
I have seen some aggressive framing of this issue – from both Council colleagues and Council candidates – as one that is “anti” climate action or otherwise contrary to non-motorized transit goals. As a simplification, this framing is quite misleading but it is also fairly easy to unpack. This bridge project contains two elements that critics argue are unacceptable and inconsistent with A2Zero goals: a turn lane into the University medical center and a reallocation of sidewalk space between the east and west side.
First, the approved project will add a vehicular turn lane into the medical center. According to critics, this vehicular lane will induce demand, cause more vehicles to choose this route, and simply generate more motorized traffic. To the extent that our community aims to slow down vehicular traffic and promote non-motorized options, some people have argued that additional vehicular lanes should be opposed everywhere, all the time. City staff and other consulting experts explained to Council: the theory of induced demand does not apply in a situation like this, where an added turn lane would only exist for short length of roadway, for the benefit of a medical center receiving patients.
Secondly, this project proposes to reallocate space on sidewalks. Currently, the sidewalks on this bridge are the same width – 10.5 feet – on both the east and west side. The improvement project proposes to expand the east side to 14.5 feet for the benefit of multi-modal users and reduce the west side to 8.5 feet, based on identified safety concerns that are likely to increase on that west side (i.e. non-motorized travel should be encouraged to use the east side, instead). This re-allocation of two feet of sidewalk on one side (and expansion on the other side) prompted significant outcry and suggestions that this project reduces safety for non motorized users, generally.
Concerns about a vehicular turn lane simply ignores the informed opinions of experts. It also overlooks the fact that much of the traffic in and out of this medical center cannot and will not ever convert to non-motorized transit. The UM Medical Center includes a Level One trauma center that meets both local and regional needs. Regarding the sidewalk: the University is open to discussion about how to address travel and safety on the west side of that bridge, but taking a hard line on two feet of sidewalk threatened the loss of millions of dollars in funding for this bridge improvement.
At least one resident reached out to me this week expressing disappointment that the City appeared to be backing down and ‘giving in’ to the University. What is at stake is millions of dollars toward a capital improvement. We do not have significant leverage toward negotiating terms. It is remarkable that the University offered the City any funds for the improvement of the E. Medical Center bridge; the amount of money they have offered in support of this project is significant.
Residents may recall that the City has another bridge that sees a lot of traffic due to the University. For anyone who may have moved to Ann Arbor more recently: the Stadium bridge in Ward 4 deteriorated to an alarming degree before federal funds were finally made available toward improving it (that bridge is now memorialized as the “John D. Dingell Jr. Memorial Bridges”). The University has no obligation to offer financial support for City infrastructure projects and it offered no financial support toward improving the Stadium bridge, despite that bridge’s proximity and significance to travel in and out of sporting events.
I have seen a lot of criticism of this Council decision that characterizes it as anti-climate action (due to the turn lane) or anti-pedestrian and anti-cyclist (due to the two feet of sidewalk). None of that criticism acknowledges the exceptional nature of the UM medical center or the millions of dollars at stake toward improving a bridge that is in dire need of repair. The amendment offered on Monday night proposed that the City ignore the needs of a regional trauma center, simply swallow millions of dollars in extra cost, and move forward without the University’s participation. Response to this Council decision highlights how easily complex issues can be simplified (and exploited) for political purposes.