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Published in Economic Development
The city of Grand Rapids recently accepted a $10 million grant that will begin analyzing alternative designs for the Wealthy Street interchange at U.S.-131. The city of Grand Rapids recently accepted a $10 million grant that will begin analyzing alternative designs for the Wealthy Street interchange at U.S.-131. MIBIZ FILE PHOTO

Community leaders push for connectivity at congested U.S.-131 interchange

BY Sunday, May 22, 2022 06:03pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Despite numerous complexities involved with improving the congested Wealthy Street interchange at U.S.-131, city and community leaders seek to create more connectivity with $10 million recently allocated to upgrade the aging infrastructure.

The Grand Rapids City Commission on May 10 formally accepted a $10 million Michigan Economic Development Corp. grant that was announced last year as part of the state’s 2022 fiscal year budget, laying the groundwork for U.S.-131 improvements. Kent County leadership worked with the state Legislature to secure an early-stage direct appropriation grant.

Grand Rapids City Engineer Tim Burkman told MiBiz that an at-grade Wealthy Street and elevated U.S.-131 — essentially reversing the interchange’s current design — would align with the city’s goals. Various redesigns for the interchange are still being considered.

“That’s our interest, that this will look at designs and achieve that outcome of bringing Wealthy to at-grade,” Burkman said. “We’re very pleased to be receiving these funds. This will help us take a very close look at ways to achieve the desired outcomes of improving the interchange and better connecting the area.”

However, reconfiguring the interchange to place Wealthy Street at-grade below an elevated U.S.-131 would be a “huge undertaking,” said Laurel Joseph, director of transportation and planning for the Grand Valley Metro Council (GVMC). 

Joseph said it will be important to consider the potential effects of that design as well as alternatives.

“We’re making decisions that are improving the corridor as best we can at this point,” Joseph said. “It’s old pavement, it does need improvement, but it’s really important in our region. It’s such a key commuter and freight line. This study is important to figure out how to best improve connections.”

The GVMC is part of the project team with the city and also is involved on the technical advisory committee for a Planning and Environmental Linkages study that the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is conducting on the U.S.-131 corridor between 28th Street and Wealthy Street. The study is expected to wrap up this year, and MDOT recently concluded a public feedback survey on potential redesigns. 

GVMC has helped model different options to improve the stretch of highway based on criteria that prioritizes aspects including safety, easing congestion for vehicles and truck traffic, and potential effects of closing ramps along the highway, Joseph said.

“From a metropolitan planning organization perspective, we just want to make sure that we are picking the option that provides the most benefit,” Joseph said. “Increasing the connections to the neighborhoods across U.S.-131 is definitely important, and whatever that ends up looking like, I think including those connections is important and also helps with safety and accessibility as well.”

However, funding the actual construction project is still a key undetermined piece of the puzzle. The $10 million grant will mostly cover planning and pre-construction costs, Joseph said. With historic amounts of federal infrastructure funding available through various grant programs, Joseph said she is confident funding eventually will be  identified.

“We want to make sure we’re being good stewards of federal dollars, and moving forward with the best alternative that has been studied to provide the biggest benefits and improvements,” Joseph said.

 

‘Lot of variables’

Any changes to the Wealthy Street interchange that improve safety for pedestrians and relieve congestion for motorists is sorely needed, said Daniel Drent, co-chair of the Heartside Downtown Neighborhood Association

Drent is concerned about the potential effect of downtown construction projects amid a growing list of large-scale redevelopment projects planned in the coming years, including the proposed amphitheater along the Grand River and mixed-use development slated for the former Sligh Furniture Co. property, both of which are in close proximity to the Wealthy interchange.

“With U.S.-131 construction on top of that, I really hope they can come up with a good, easy-to-follow detour that will reduce some of the traffic coming on to Division Avenue,” Drent said. “With all of those other building proposals and projects, they need to figure that out. Anything they do (to update the Wealthy Street interchange) will be an improvement, and bringing Wealthy to street-level is probably the best option. I believe that will make it more pedestrian- and neighborhood-friendly. Right now it just takes you in and out and doesn’t take you into the community.”

The regional modeling process will study the effects of potentially closing exit or on-ramps along U.S. 131, Joseph said.

Drent said he “cringes” at the idea of eliminating a ramp with the downtown outdoor amphitheater development now in motion, particularly if multiple major events are scheduled downtown at once.

“The issue with U.S.-131 and Wealthy Street is that you can’t do something to Wealthy without impacting half a mile on either side of the freeway, so there are a lot of variables we have to work through with this,” said Dennis Kent, regional transportation planner for MDOT’s Grand Region. “We’re not quite there yet to say this is exactly what we’re going to do or not going to do.”

Bringing Wealthy Street to an at-grade level was brought up several times in MDOT’s public feedback session, but it remains unclear whether it’s the best option moving forward, Kent added.

“It’s an important piece of the puzzle, but it’s hard to just look at one piece of U.S.-131 in isolation,” Kent said. 

  

A broader view

Urbanists and community residents have expressed frustration toward state officials for allegedly ignoring suggestions from prior feedback sessions about redesigning the corridor to be more pedestrian-friendly and to help connect city neighborhoods that were separated by the current design.

“This is a generational project,” said Mark Miller, managing director of planning and design with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. “When it was built, it transformed the city. There’s a lot of baggage to unpack with that, it was a different time and there were people who felt what they were doing was the right thing to do. Highways were built in downtowns that certainly in Grand Rapids cut through some Black and brown neighborhoods.”

Miller agrees with the need to take time to understand the variables in any change made to U.S.-131, but he views those variables as opportunities.

“This was built in the ‘60s and we think differently about cities today than we did then, and we have a lot more economic development in our city now than we did then,” Miller said. “We have a lot more pressure in our city on how we will accommodate livability aspects to downtown, including affordable housing.” 

The ramps along U.S.-131 — which could potentially be reduced in number under a few conceptual ideas that have been discussed — also occupy a significant amount of publicly owned real estate in the core of the city, Miller added.

“If we’re going to do a more robust study, let’s look at other options to free up this real estate to do something else with it,” he said. “Across the country, a lot of people are looking at their highways and considering what else they can do with that space. What is the vision as it goes through the urban core? There are a lot of other options we haven’t even touched base with yet, we’re just picking around the edges.” 

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