2019 Labor Day Mackinac Bridge Walk
Talking Michigan Transportation – Sept. 4, 2019
2019 Labor Day Mackinac Bridge Walk
Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation. On this week's episode our host, MDOT communications director Jeff Cranson, talks to two special guests with deep ties to the Mackinac Bridge.
Jeff Cranson: Hi, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. This is only our second episode, having begun just last week with an interview with MDOT director Paul Agejba. Today I’m fortunate to be talking with Kim Nowak who is the executive secretary - which actually means the CEO, head administrator - of the Mackinac Bridge Authority and I thought it was appropriate this week, recording just a day after the annual Labor Day bridge Walk, given all the changes that that tradition has endured in the past few years. So Kim, thanks for taking the time to do this.
Kim Nowack: Oh, you're welcome, it's my pleasure.
Jeff Cranson: So, let's talk a little bit about the first Bridge Walk that you oversaw since being named the head administrator of the bridge and how you think things went.
Kim Nowack: Oh, I think everything went great. We were a little worried with a little rain early on, but that left us, and everybody I encountered on my trip across the bridge was very happy and had a nice time out there.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I was watching all morning. I know in other years your crew has had to keep an eye on the weather for the days leading in and do updates with NOAA and try to be prepared for everything. This year it looked like it was going to be clear, there were just some tiny little green cells out there, and then all of a sudden here it was sprinkling right before we started, so it kind of took me by surprise.
Kim Nowack: Yeah, it took the rest of us by surprise too, but like I said it didn't last.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, well, let's talk. You know it was a big, big decision that the Bridge Authority had to make a couple of years ago, and you were then the chief engineer of the bridge and you were obviously very involved in helping to plan for those changes and what it was going to mean in terms of the operations of the bridge and the weight, the counterweight, the sway, all those things that you have to factor in and that you probably think about 24/7. But the politics of it - knowing that Homeland Security and the State Police were basically saying “You know what, we have to strongly recommend that the MBA prohibit vehicle traffic. There's just been terrorist attacks all over the world, and even domestically, where people have weaponized vehicles to run into crowds of people and it's a terrifying thought.” So they didn't really leave a lot of options for choice. I think the MBA had to do what it did, but taking away vehicles and trying to figure out how to plan and continue this tradition, it's been fraught with criticism and second-guessing both in the communities in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, but downstate too as people - I mean this bridge is everybody's bridge, and there's a lot of people from all over the country really, maybe even the world, but especially parts of Michigan who have made it a tradition to go up there and do the walk. All that had to be factored in. Can you talk about that process?
Kim Nowack: Yeah, this was the third year that we didn't allow private vehicles across the bridge. The first year, we tried to still accomplish it our traditional way with buses that we provide getting people up here to the starting line and we found out since there were no private vehicles on the bridge that we could not transport all those people just in buses. In the past, people brought themselves up here in pick up loads and vans to start their walk, but we couldn't do it all with buses; we couldn't get enough buses, we couldn't do it fast enough, and we left a bunch of people at the starting line. So, we knew the buses wouldn't work, so we switched over to what we call the U-turn scheme and that allows people to not have to wait for a bus. They can start at either end, they can go to the middle and turn around, they can go both ways, one way over and one way back, they can walk just as far as they're able and turn around which sometimes is only a small portion. Lots of different options, and then everybody gets to walk as they're able and it worked out great. Anybody that wanted to walk could do it, so it was a success last year and even better this year.
Jeff Cranson: So coming off those growing pains from 2017, the first year it was closed to traffic and, as you discussed, found out that there just wasn't time within that time frame to get everybody on the buses and off the buses and back where they started, there was definitely, I think, some skepticism about the U-turn option when that was first proposed by some members of your staff. Other people sort of warmed to it and decided “you know, maybe that's worth a try,” and it seems like it's worked out really well. The people that are really steadfast that want to absolutely be able to say they’ve crossed the entire bridge can find a way to do it, and for others, as you mentioned, it's still a way to have access to this incredibly iconic structure.
Kim Nowack: Mm-hm
Jeff Cranson: I mean there's nothing more iconic in Michigan, we stamp it on our license plate and the governor used it in her campaign materials and it’s on her website.
Kim Nowack: Right, yeah.
Jeff Cranson: So do you think that that's - has that criticism dulled down and that skepticism dulled down, do you think?
Kim Nowack: Well it has gone down, and I'll tell you when the idea first came up here we all kind of laughed and said “well, that's crazy,” but then on second thought we said “well, why not,” and I'm glad we did that. And I tell you what, last year was the most planning we've ever done on a Bridge Walk since I've been here in 17 years, just trying to figure that U-turn scheme out and make sure it would go well, and it did. And what I like about it is if somebody can only walk a little ways before they get tired or before they need to stop they can do that, they can just turn around and go back.
Jeff Cranson: And you have small children for instance.
Kim Nowack: Yeah, small children, right, and they never could do that before. They always had to keep pushing, keep pushing, and then they'd end up in an ambulance or being carried off the bridge, you know, so now it's a lot nicer.
Jeff Cranson: I remember the first year I did it, my son was probably four or five, and he got a side ache and I ended up carrying him on my shoulders the rest of the way.
Kim Nowack: Oh yeah, it's a long way across.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah. Well, I think there's still going to be things that we learn, and there’s still going to be challenges. Numbers lagged a little last year in the first year of the turnaround option. We never know for sure why that is, if it was because of the turnaround, if it was because - in our efforts to communicate that the bridge was going to be closed the last three years, we used the dynamic message signs on the freeways across the state, and started alerting people a good six weeks or so before the Bridge Walk that the bridge would be closed during those hours, from 6:30 to noon on Labor Day, and in in part that could have created a sense of confusion or that, you know, maybe the Bridge Walk isn't going on. There's only so much you can communicate on a sign. I've defended us inundating that on the signs, a lot of people have said to me “geez, don't think that's overkill?” and I say yes…
Jeff Cranson: …I don’t want anybody not to know that the bridge is closing down.
Kim Nowack: Right, and that works, because I tell you what, our backups here were very minimal, especially northbound. Southbound it took us an hour and a half to clean it up, and that's nothing worse than a normal Sunday getting all the vacationers out of the UP, so it works really well getting those messages out to people.
Jeff Cranson: Or vacationers from downstate going back to the UP, right?
Kim Nowack: Yeah, well there’s that too but they seem to be fewer than the others.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, for sure. Well I think we estimated 30,000 this year which is back to where we were just a couple of years ago outside of some big events. The 60th anniversary I think they estimated more than 60,000. I think when President George HW Bush walked it in 1992 they estimated, what, some 90,000 at that time?
Kim Nowack: Oh, you know, I don't know that number, but you might be right.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, but other than that, I think it's been all over the board and it's really hard to say why. But I really feel, and I know it's going to be until next year that we know, considering the weather was a little iffy, that getting back to 30,000 with this new configuration and everything else that's gone on is a really good sign.
Kim Nowack: Yeah, I do too, and we could certainly take more than that, and as people hear from others about what fun it was out there, and how quiet it was, and how easy it was, hopefully we will increase our numbers.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah. What do you hear from people about why they do it? Some people it's just become a tradition and they don't want to stop their tradition, but what else do you hear about what the thrill is, and what makes people drive that far and get up that early to do this?
Kim Nowack: Well, it's the only day in the year that they can walk out there, you know. Other days of the year we would take them off the bridge if they started walking out there, so it is the only day of the year that they're allowed to do it, and so it's just a special experience. It's a beautiful area and to see it from the high up on the bridge is really wonderful.
Jeff Cranson: So talk about that, I guess. Before being named the head administrator you were the chief bridge engineer, but your trajectory as a civil engineer and what brought you to the Mackinac Bridge.
Kim Nowack: Well, I started out with MDOT right out of college and worked all around the state in the cross training - the engineer development program and got a lot of different skills and saw a lot of different parts of the state in construction, traffic and safety design, and got the job as chief engineer here in 2002 where I have had to use all those skills MDOT taught me, and so we're so part of MDOT, and I've had a great career here and love my job as chief engineer, and my job here as executive secretary has been very exciting so far, and very enjoyable, so I look forward to the future.
Jeff Cranson: So what feeds your passion and makes you just love this job so much?
Kim Nowack: Well, it's so interesting. I mean, dealing with people coming through the toll booths, and trying to make that experience good, and dealing with all the structural things we have going on out there - it's just very, very interesting and unique because it's a suspension bridge in Michigan. It's not an overpass, it's not a section of highway, it's very unique, so I just find it all very interesting and keeps me going during my days, that's for sure.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I remember on the bridge’s 40th anniversary when I was still an editor at the Grand Rapids Press we sent a reporter and a photographer up to the bridge with an ironworker from White Cloud who had helped build it, and when he got to go to the top and talk about it and, you know, recount his memories of building it, and you see that - I mean now that generation is mostly passed, but those ironworkers - the tremendous pride they took in that and that sense of accomplishment of being able to participate in that, it's just something not a lot of people get.
Kim Nowack: Yeah, it is, and all of our workers take great ownership in the bridge, so they're all very passionate about their jobs and try to do good for the bridge, so we're all looking out for that bridge.
Jeff Cranson: Well, speaking of ownership and innovation, talk a little bit about the giant flag and the innovative method that your staff came up with to furl it and unfurl it.
Kim Nowack: Yeah, well, we learned about that flag from the George Washington Bridge, I believe. They fly one there on occasion, so we wanted to try that on holidays. So, we got the flag and it took about 20 guys to hoist that up and make sure it didn't touch the ground and do it just right, and a couple of the guys in the shop got the idea for an automated roll-up device and they worked during the winters on that and rainy days and created it. So, now when they push a button the flag unfurls, and they push another button and it rolls back up. So, we did that yesterday and it was out during the whole walk since the winds were low and it wasn't raining later in the morning. So, it's a beautiful sight to see and we hope to do it - let's see - the next time will be September 11th, we also plan on September 11th.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, it was very noticeable that a lot of the walkers from St. Ignace, past the North Tower, that's where the most selfies were taken. People really liked getting that flag in the background.
Kim Nowack: Oh yeah, it was beautiful.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah. Okay, well thanks Kim, and congratulations, you know, one on your ascending to this important job, but also on a very successful Bridge Walk in 2019.
Kim Nowack: Well thank you, I’m happy it all went well.
Jeff Cranson: I'm Jeff Cranson and I'm back with the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, and our second guest this week is Patrick “Shorty” Gleason who is the chairman of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, and has been on the Mackinac Bridge Authority, I don't know, Shorty, how many years now? Like 14, something like that?
Patrick “Shorty” Gleason: Yeah, I believe 16 years.
Jeff Cranson: 16 years, so was definitely on the Authority when the very difficult, challenging decisions had to be made the past few years about the walk, and about taking vehicles off the bridge, and realigning things, so talk a little bit about that, Shorty, and the challenges involved in trying to make everybody happy.
Patrick “Shorty” Gleason: Well, as you know, our decisions are driven by safety up there, for the motorists, and especially when it comes to the Bridge Walk, to make sure that everybody on that bridge can walk it safely from start to finish, and at any given time you're going to have 10,000 people on that bridge, so we - fortunately with the Homeland Security and the Michigan State Police and the MBA staff - they came up with a wonderful plan to shut the bridge down and walk from both the Mackinac side and the St. Ignace side, and it's really turned out to be very beneficial. So many families that couldn't make the entire tracks, especially our seniors, can walk whatever they want to and turn around and come back and get right back into their vehicle and leave, but I think overall, the Walk right now, with the improvements that have been made, especially when it comes to everybody's safety on that bridge, it's really, really working well and DMB staff, the Michigan State Police, just do a phenomenal job up there, and pre-planning, and it goes on. Just like a well-oiled machine right now.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. So, talk a little bit, Shorty, about your very personal connection to this bridge - and there were a lot of great photos yesterday on social media - there always are, you know, selfies and photos people take of family members, and every one has a very nice story behind it - but I think my favorite of the day is still the one that you sent me in the afternoon of the governor with your granddaughter Charlotte who was in a stroller from doing the bridge walk for the first time.
Patrick “Shorty” Gleason: Yeah, well, for our family, and, you know Jeff, me being an ironworker by trade, there's always, always been a very special connection there. My father, Mike Gleason, worked at the bridge for three years as an ironworker, and throughout the years I've met so many ironworkers in the field that worked on the bridge, and all these stories and everything else, and to be able to have Charlotte - she was six and a half months old - being able to take her for the first time across the Mackinac Bridge - and there isn't a time where I'm walking the bridge, or driving across the bridge, or even away from the bridge that I don't think about those ironworkers, what they had to do, and make it all work, and as history has shown, back then many, many people said that that bridge could never be built, but I tell you one thing, you don't tell an ironworker that they can't build something because they’ll get it done, and it was done on time and on budget - and my son is an ironworker too - that's Charlotte's father – he was with us, and back in ‘99 and 2001 they put the new traveling system underneath the Mackinac Bridge with the purpose of maintaining the bridge, and Shawn worked up there as an apprentice, so he’s always had that special touch, and there's four generations of Gleason's now been over that bridge.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, you have a multi-generational tie to the bridge. Talk a little bit about your father’s experiences, and what was an interesting story he told you about working on the bridge?
Patrick “Shorty” Gleason: Well, you know, there's one thing that - on any big job there's always one part of the project that’s really been somewhat of a challenge, or really interesting. One thing that I always appreciated about how Dad talked about the bridge was that each and every phase of that bridge was a challenge. From the first time that they've got the caissons to the bedrock and then, you know, building the towers themselves using the creeper derricks, and he had wonderful stories about the guys in the riveting gangs. You know, a lot of people don't realize that bridge - there was five million hand driven rivets on that bridge.
Now, just try to picture this - that each and every morning you had to fire up those heaters, get those coals red-hot. They'd either use coke or coal to be able to get that kind of heat, heat those rivets up to where they were the right temperature, and a man would grab it, or reach in there with the tongs, grab those red-hot rivets, throw it into the air - up to the float that the guys were working on - some guy would catch it with a catch can, reach in there and grab it with tongs, and line it in the hole, and two guys who would immediately - one guy would buck the rivet up and the other guy would drive the rivet.
Now, this has to be done - once you take that rivet out of that heater you only have so much time to be able to drive that rivet properly where it would make tight iron and you have a perfect mushroom. So, and then, you go back, and you listen to him talk about the timing, and how they spun that cable. You know, there's I believe 12,580 strands of cable in there. He worked around the clock doing that, but, and then how they separated it and fine-tuned it, it was really, really amazing. And you picture the structural steel erection, when they had to pull them out, they built the sections there in St. Ignace, they put them on barges to float them out, used what they call cat-heads or tuggers to drop down on the main cable and pick up the top sections off the barge and hoist them into place in the connectors up there, that's the term that they used when the ironworkers were actually putting that the steel into place, so there was - I mean I could go on and on and on.
Jeff Cranson: Well, it helps you understand why it's such an incredible sense of accomplishment that they felt, and you're right, there were a heck of a lot of skeptics that said it couldn't be done, that it would never be done, and it's why we talk about, now, that Michigan is a state that used to do big things when it came to infrastructure, and we can be again.
Patrick “Shorty” Gleason: Yeah, and you know when you stop to think about it, unfortunately, there was five men that lost their lives. When you put that into perspective, that back then there were no safety rules, there was no such thing as OSHA or MIOSHA, you know? I mean they were very, very talented, highly skilled individuals that really looked out at one another.
Of course, the contractor American Bridge, had an excellent safety program being that we're talking 60 some years ago, and the amount of families that I met as a young kid because we went up there we stayed at the - there was no cabins off US-2 but some hotels, still there, motels - but all those families were just very tight knit families, and it was really, really quite an experience. And that's why the most important thing to the Mackinac Bridge Authority, to me, is that as you alternate the seats on the Authority, you always have to keep in mind that you never, never lose perspective of the real tradition and the purpose of that Mackinac Bridge Authority. It's just not a normal Authority, it's important that people understand all the history of that bridge and making these decisions.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I agree. Well, that's great, I'm really, really glad that you got a chance to share your story with folks, and I'm really especially glad that Charlotte got to do her first Bridge Walk, and hope that we see her up there in a couple years when she's actually walking herself.
Patrick “Shorty” Gleason: Wow, it won't be long at that, but it was it was a very special moment for our family.
Narrator: For more on this episode of Talking Michigan Transportation, head on over to our Talking Michigan Transportation Soundcloud page.