The other cones of summer

Published 9:58 pm Thursday, April 28, 2011

With four projects on deck for this summer, a like amount during 2012, plus a wish list for when “money grows on trees,” Chieftain orange-colored traffic cones may be more of a familiar sight around the Dowagiac area than the other kind containing ice cream.

Pete Pfeiffer of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) previewed what’s in store for Cass County Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889 for Rotary Club as guest of County Commissioner Robert Wagel, R-Wayne Township.

Pfeiffer, a civil engineer, since February has been managing the Coloma Transportation Service Center (TSC) on Red Arrow Highway after 22 years with the Kalamazoo TSC.

The position opened when previous TSC manager Paul South was called into duty in Afghanistan.

The Coloma TSC oversees design, construction and maintenance activities for state highways and bridges in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

Statewide, MDOT maps 99 road repair projects in 2011.

Pfeiffer’s patter is peppered with acronyms such as RSL (remaining service life in pavement measured from a rough ride of zero to 24 years) and CPM (capital preventive maintenance).

Pfeiffer highlighted four state highway projects on tap for Cass County:

• U.S. 12, from Union to Mottville. Six miles of “major” road rehabilitation and bridge replacement began March 21 and detours local traffic until October. The project costs more than $7.5 million.

• M-51 from Pokagon Street a mile and a half to the railroad track at Depot Drive in Dowagiac.

“We’re going to grind off about an inch and a half of the top of the pavement and place back an inch and a half. You will see at the beginning of that project a lot of monkeying around with sidewalk ramps. It is a federal requirement that we have to address deficiencies to make them ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. The contractor will be cutting them out and making them flatter or wider and making them easier for a person in a wheelchair to traverse. Then the pavement work begins.”

While the completion date is October, Pfeiffer is optimistic the $400,000 project will be accomplished by Labor Day.

Retired school superintendent Larry Crandall asked what goes into MDOT decisions that the work would stop at the track rather than continue half a mile east for M-62 to the city limit, which is “every bit as rough and perhaps more rough than to the tracks.”

“That’s a valid question and a lot of things are considered,” Pfeiffer said.

“This comes from the CPM pot of money. Think of roads in poor, fair or good condition. That section east of the tracks is pretty poor, while the section west of the tracks is relatively fair, and we can only use that silo of money on fair or good condition roads.

“It’s like changing the oil on your car, where you have two options. One, you can not change the oil or grease it or change the fluids until it conks out, then it costs you major dollars. Or, you can do regular, routine scheduled maintenance — like this project.

“People are driving less and buying fewer cars, and those are the two major funding sources for all roadwork in Michigan. Fuel tax, fuel sales tax and vehicle registration. U.S. 12 from Union to Mottville is using the pot of money for a poor roadway. That was a rough ride.”

Decisions as to which pot funds are deposited into are made at the Lansing level relying on a strategy of “expanding your limited financial resources to make your whole roadway and bridge network across the whole state to maximize smoothness with the least amount of potholes.”

• Two parts, crack sealing on M-62 between Cassopolis and Dowagiac and east of Edwardsburg (plus U.S. 12 east of Three Oaks in Berrien County for a 26.7-mile total). “Sealing cracks keeps water from infiltrating” and creating spring potholes. “That $200,000 work starts in August. It’s very fast work. They can cover six miles in a day.”

“Almost all of our work on state highways is federally-funded,” Pfeiffer explained. “For any construction project on a state highway — bridges or roads — about 80 percent comes from federal fuel tax. About 20 percent comes from Michigan fuel tax. Projects with federal dollars in them must be competitively bid. We don’t have the equipment private contractors do when it comes to cranes and excavators. It’s difficult for a government agency to get in on that.”

Pfeiffer estimated that 75 percent of projects finish by their timelines, although M-140 in Watervliet “is a pretty large project with a lot of excavation, and it’s been very rainy and there are some utility challenges.”

He said “microsurface” resembles asphalt, but combines “cement, a little bit of oil and a little bit of fine stone and sand. “Its purpose isn’t for a smoother ride, but to seal the top of the pavement” from moisture.

As for why I-94 and other interstates are a patchwork of asphalt and cement sections, Pfeiffer answered Crandall, “It is a state law that any project that has a paving cost of more than $1 million needs to undergo a life cycle cost analysis. What that is, in the most simplistic terms, is you compare initial costs of a concrete fix versus an asphalt fix over time — 20 to 30 years or so — including planned maintenance.

“A lot of it has to do with how you’re going to keep traffic moving during construction. Asphalt, you can close lanes while traffic drives right next to the work. But concrete is not. You have to shift traffic away from the work.

“There are some other things to consider, such as how much underground work you have to do to build up your pavement section, replacing sand and gravel.”

While it’s not been decided yet, Pfeiffer expects 2012 to include “a lot of bridgework in the Dowagiac area. I did not know this, but there are at least three bridges either at Dowagiac Creek or Dowagiac River that cross M-62 in this area. Each of those three — or more — are going to get what’s called a deck overlay of new pavement and potentially some painting of the steel. We’re still in the design stages.”

U.S. 12, from Niles to Edwardsburg, “That road is very rough,” he said. “MDOT’s maintenance people are out there nearly daily patching potholes.”

Besides resurfacing, “We’re going to add some turn lanes at Gumwood,” a popular route to University Park Mall in Mishawaka, Ind.

“We hope to do M-60 in downtown Vandalia, similar to Dowagiac, grinding off an inch and a half and resurfacing it. Also, in the Marcellus area, I believe on M-40 it’s from the VFW going north, taking a left all the way out to Marcellus Highway and east on M-216 to nearly the St. Joseph County line.”

If money grew on trees and wasn’t a consideration, Pfeiffer would like to address M-51 north of Dowagiac after driving here on it; M-60 from Cassopolis to U.S. 12; M-62, from Cassopolis to Edwardsburg; M-60, from Cassopolis to Vandalia; M-62 west out of town toward Indian Lake to the Berrien County line; and M-40 toward Lawton.

“There’s a lot to be done with limited resources,” he said, “but we’re not going to give up.

“Michigan has the highest weight limit for trucks of any state in the nation. They are heavily loaded. If you drive I-94 or U.S. 131, you’ll see right at the state line the big trucks drop trailers to reduce their weights for other states.”