COVID-19 and the effect on transportation in Michigan
On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, how COVID-19 is affecting mobility, how MDOT is supporting relief efforts, and the 2020 construction season.
First, Scott Greene, manager of MDOT’s Utility Coordination and Permits Services section, talks about the decision to exempt from seasonal weight restrictions trucks hauling food and vital supplies for relief efforts.
Following MDOT’s decision to waive the restrictions for specific vehicles, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order ordering those same exemptions for local road agencies as well as MDOT. The order also requires all road agencies to expedite the permitting process for non-seasonal load restrictions.
The governor’s order also requires road agencies to suspend restrictions on the noise and timing of deliveries that meet immediate needs related to relief efforts.
Next, Jean Ruestman, director of the MDOT Office of Passenger Transportation, talks about the effect on public transit services and how agencies are adjusting. The largest operators of public buses in Metro Detroit are waiving fares for riders in response to the crisis as are some other agencies around the state.
While the health crisis is thinning crowds on public transit across the country, Ruestman talks about the vital role these services play in getting people to and from work, doctor’s appointments, and retail outlets for food and medicine.
To see what’s going on at various transit agencies across the state, access their home pages.
In related news, Amtrak has made several service changes. In Michigan, these include suspending passenger rail service on the Pere Marquette between Grand Rapids and Chicago and reduced service on the Wolverine line, connecting several Michigan cities with Chicago.
Finally, Gregg Brunner, director of MDOT’s Bureau of Field Services, joins the podcast to talk about whether the health crisis will have any effect on the coming construction season.
Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT Communications Director Jeff Cranson.
Jeff Cranson: Hi, once again I'm Jeff Cranson, and this week I'm pleased to be talking to 3 people at the Michigan Department of Transportation about COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, and how the department is reacting to the health crisis and helping support relief efforts. First, I'll be speaking with Scott Greene, manager of the MDOT unit that issues permits for commercial haulers about decisions to grant exemptions and seasonal weight restrictions for trucks that carry food and vital supplies. After that, Jean Ruestman who's the director of the Office of Passenger Transportation joins me to talk about the effect on public transit services, and how agencies are adjusting. Lastly, I'll speak with Greg Brunner who's the director of the Bureau of Field Services, and he'll talk about this year's road and bridge work, and whether this health crisis will have any impact on that, but first I'm here with Scott Greene. Scott, thanks very much for taking the time to do this, and could you talk a little bit about your overall operation, and what you guys do?
Scott Greene: Yes, Jeff, thank you very much for having me on here. Our overall operation here in this section for MDOT - we are taking applications for transport permits, that'd be like the oversized or overweight loads that move down our roadways, and then other areas we cover here are driveway permits, utility coordination within our MDOT projects, and also project agreements with different agencies regarding cost-sharing. That's the grand overview. On the reference to the transport permits - our unit here, we have five permit agents and a supervisor, so, for six total folks that review these permit applications that come in, and what they're looking for is things to protect our infrastructure, our bridges, and our roads, and then also to make sure all necessary restrictions are put on those loads, and that the route is approved for that load to move down.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, so there's a couple of different things going on there, but the reason this is in the news right now is because of the decision over the weekend to basically grant exemptions for very specific uses of trucks that are supporting the COVID-19 relief effort, and those exemptions are just for seasonal weight restrictions that we put into place every spring. I think it's been somewhat earlier in recent years because of the mild winters, is that right?
Scott Greene: Yeah. Yeah, they've been going a little bit earlier, but not lasting as long as if they go on earlier, they usually come off a little bit quicker too,
Jeff Cranson: Right. So, talk about, you know, what you think that does, and that decision to allow people that specifically are helping with that relief effort. Obviously, you supported the idea, so I guess tell me how you think that came to be.
Scott Greene: Well in regard to the temporary or the seasonal for spring weight restrictions - it reduces the axle weights on trucks between 35% and 25% on certain roads which are susceptible to damage when the thaw is actually coming out of the ground, and the roads are actually drying out from all the moisture obtained over the winter, and in particular with this regard to this executive order, it's only allowing those trucks that will be – to haul legal axle weight to go down those some of those restricted routes, and within Michigan, on our truck operator’s map, these are routes are detailed by a red line, so they’re a red solid line or red dashed line, and so, we don't have a whole lot of those on the Michigan state trunkline system, they're kind of spread out throughout the state, so there's many ways to get around those areas anyhow while operating at legal axle loads during spring weight restrictions, but this will allow these trucks to reach communities where those essential supplies are needed, such as medical supplies, testing kits, sanitation supplies, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and also for, most importantly, restocking a lot of our grocery stores with the stuff people need.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, certainly food is a big driver of this. So, um, I think, you know, and we'll link to that map that you were talking about on the site so people can see exactly what that is, but I think that the confusion is, and you pointed this out pretty clearly, that we're not talking about overweight trucks. This doesn't allow trucks beyond legal loads at all. It allows what would be legal loads all year to travel during this spring weight restriction period.
Scott Greene: Correct, yeah, and only for direct assistance for the COVID-19 relief efforts that are going on.
Jeff Cranson: And I think that in the executive order that the governor issued - which is broader than what we're talking about with the spring weight exemptions - the executive order applies more broadly to permitting by MDOT into local ordinances by communities. Can you talk a little bit about that? I mean these are these are local road agencies, these aren't MDOT jurisdiction roads, but I'm guessing that you know a little bit about why they have some of those ordinances, and what the idea is to have those in the first place.
Scott Greene: Oh, it could be many varied reasons, it could be traffic density in those areas, they want deliveries to occur during non-peak travel times because the truck may have to park in a lane of traffic to unload, you know, it could be noise ordinances around there, many different factors that come into that.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, they could be close to a residential neighborhood, and noise could be a factor early in the morning, or late in the day for sure.
Scott Greene: Yeah, correct.
Jeff Cranson: So, talk about, while we're here and we got this, I think that a lot of people probably wonder, I mean, you explained, especially in the spring, when, you know, the soil’s softer, and the roads can heave, and that's why we have what we call a “pothole season,” but overall there's a lot of misunderstanding about Michigan's truck weight laws, and our per-axle system, and why we do it that way, and how it works. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Scott Greene: Yeah, I’ll try the best I can. It's a pretty complex system we have, but basically our state law specifies that axles spaced a certain distance apart can have a certain amount of load on them, and with regard to that, on 11 axles, the perfect configuration that can support 164,000 pounds of gross weight, that each one of those axles will have about 13,000 pounds on them, give or take. Some axles can have a little bit more depending where they're at within that spread of 11 axles. So, that allows us to go up to a higher overall gross weight to be able to haul materials and supplies without getting permits because that'd be our legal axle loads, maybe, for those departments. Many other states that surround us, actually, they have to start getting permits once they exceed 80,000 pounds on the truck. Interestingly enough, most of those, the axle weights on those 80,000-pound interstate trucks are typically a little bit higher than our axle weights that we allow for 164,000 pounds. So basically, if you think about it, our axle weight law helps spread the load out over a greater portion of the road instead of concentrating it on just a few axles.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I mean, I think the science behind it is well supported. The analogy that I use for people is your refrigerator. Does it stand upright, or do you lay it down, and how would you spread the weight out more, right?
Scott Greene: Yeah.
Jeff Cranson: I think that's highly misunderstood, and it's also important to point out that those really big trucks that you're talking about, you know, the ones that are much more than 80,000 pounds that get up into the 160,000 pound range, are fewer than 5% of all the trucks on Michigan roads.
Scott Greene: Oh yeah, in fact most trucks on Michigan roads are less than 140,000 pounds, I believe, gross.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, so that's kind of misunderstood too. Well Scott, I don't know if you thought, as things unfolded the last couple weeks, that what's going on with this virus, and the efforts to try to, you know, mitigate it and slow the spread would touch you and your particular operation within the Department of Transportation, but it has now, and you guys seem like you're dealing with it, and you know, trying to be as helpful as possible.
Scott Greene: Mhm. Yeah, because spring weight restrictions, they typically tend to - we get a little bit lower number of permits coming in per day, and they're usually spread out a little bit more, and then we have five staff on board that are highly qualified, and very efficient with their time to be able to issue these permits
Jeff Cranson: And you can turn most of them around in the same day, right?
Scott Greene: Yes, yeah. It's back to, when I checked earlier, I think we only had six permits in the queue at that moment, so they're jumping on them pretty quick.
Jeff Cranson: That's great. Well, we'll see how this develops, and if anything needs to be extended, you know, we hope not, but let's face it, this whole thing is a time of uncertainty, so we'll have to just keep an eye on it.
Scott Greene: Yeah, and just put that six in perspective, you typically would get between 400 and 500 a day, permits coming in.
Jeff Cranson: Wow.
Scott Greene: So, like I said, they're jumping on pretty quick and I can check any moment and there's very few on our permit queue.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, that is good timing, I guess, if there's anything to be said for it. Okay, well thanks guys, I appreciate it.
Scott Greene: No problem, take care.
Jeff Cranson: So, once again, as promised, for the second segment of this week's conversation I'm going to be speaking with Jean Ruestman, who is the Director of MDOT’s Office of Passenger Transportation, and has relationships and contacts with the transit agencies across the state, and is following very closely how this health crisis is affecting transit agencies, and the difficult decisions they have to make about how to, you know, make sure that their employees and customers are safe, and that they still provide what really is an essential service. So, thanks, Jean, for taking time to do this. Can you talk about some of the difficulties these people are facing?
Jean Ruestman: Yeah, I’d love to Jeff, thanks for giving me the opportunity. It's really difficult time for everyone across the state and the transit agencies are really struggling trying to balance keeping people safe and making sure that includes getting people the essential services they need. So many people around the state really rely on public transit to get to medical appointments, and I'm talking not just to see the doctor, but get dialysis, get cancer treatment. They rely on transit to get to the pharmacy to get the medications they need to stay alive, to stay healthy, so they're working really hard to balance out all of that, so they're taking measures to, you know, disinfect their buses frequently, and provide disinfectant for the passengers getting on, asking passengers to still be mindful of social distance, and you know, sit farther away from other people on the bus if they can. A lot of them are going to free free fares, especially the urban system, because money is where those germs can transfer, from the money and everything that that touches. So, a lot of them are implementing that, especially on the urban route systems, you know, obviously this is going to cause a financial burden, but it's the right thing to do.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, that handling of currency is a real issue, which is why both the Blue Water Bridge and Mackinac Bridge have gone to cashless payments, you know, credit cards, or in the Mackinac Bridge’s case, using your sticker, or MacPass, just because I've been reading about this the last couple days when the conversation came up, and I had no idea of the germs that are held within paper dollar bills.
Jean Ruestman: Yeah, I think we're all learning a whole lot about how germs are spread because of this, which will hopefully help keep us all healthier in the future, getting back to doing things we all knew we should have been doing in the first place, and some things we just never thought of before, and you know Jeff, it's interesting you say that, you know, they're going to cashless, and that what some of the agencies have already been working towards, and it'll help us really understand why it's so important to improve the technology in a lot of transit systems, that we need to invest in systems, in new technology that will allow for cashless payments on buses. I think this will really help step up our, you know, gathering information, and actually taking that leap, and implementing some of these new technologies that help us avoid having to take money from my hand and put it in your hand, or even put it in a fare box someone later on has to touch, so.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, so we know this is a fluid situation, and things are changing rapidly, and even by the time you and I get done recording and this posts, something else will have happened, but so far SMART, which serves the suburban communities around Metro Detroit, and the Detroit Department of Transportation, which operates the buses in the City of Detroit, have both gone to that that free fare system. Are there others, do you know?
Jean Ruestman: Yeah, I believe that many of the urban systems, I believe that Saginaw has implemented that, Ann Arbor - I can't give you a full list because, like you said, they're coming in fast and furious. Make sure that you go out to the website for your transit system, people are going to be riding transit, just go out to the website and they’ll post it out there what measures are taking, if they've gone fare free. I know the whole Detroit area is doing it, I think most of the urban systems. For the rural systems I'm not 100% sure, but again, I really encourage people to just go to the website and check and see what's happening at each of the systems, at the system you take. Some of them have had to go to essential services only, so if you're calling for a ride to just go visit somebody, they may turn you down because they're trying to limit people's exposure, and help people make the right choices about, you know, what they do, but if you're calling for a ride to dialysis or anything you will get that ride, and whatever it takes to get you there, the systems will be working with you to get there, and for everybody else, just realize that, especially in the rural areas, it’s very simple for - the buses aren't packed all the time, so it's easy for them to go in between passengers, and disinfect the buses, and that's what they've been doing, but they're trying right now to stay open at least to get people to essential services, and in each area that, you know, they can define what that essential services, is that doctors, for some people it's getting to jobs, like they, the medical community, the health care workers have to get to their job so that they can take care of the rest of us.
Jeff Cranson: Oh, well, yeah, in Grand Rapids for instance, the state's first BRT which serves all the health operations, and I think in Cleveland, isn't their BRT known as the Healthline?
Jean Ruestman: I believe it is, I think you're right, and you know, we have a lot of people that come across the border to get to work in a hospital in Detroit, and so we're trying to work and make sure that that all still happens, that people, that healthcare workers especially, can get where they need to be, that people who need medical services can get where they need to be, and the transit industry, you know, they're out there to help people. That's their - people aren't in that business to make money, they’re in it because they care about the people in this state, the people that they're transporting.
Jeff Cranson: Well, it's more caring than ever, I mean, we're, you know, we've kind of preached this mobility for all mantra for the past few years with the first mobility challenge, which you were highly involved in, and helped direct, and the second mobility challenge, and it's all about offering mobility to everybody, from a social justice standpoint, and so now here you are with a staff that's highly committed to that, and like you say, the staffs at all these transit agencies are highly committed to that, and they've got this balancing act, like so many things in this health crisis, they've got to figure out how to still serve people, but try to keep them safe, so I think it’s great that you and your staff are doing what you do.
Jean Ruestman: Thanks, Jeff. Thank you, I appreciate that, and I just hope everybody has patience with the process and realize that they’re all just trying to keep the best interests of their passengers in mind so the decisions they’re making are fully based on how do we keep people safe and how do we make sure they get the services they need to get to stay healthy.
Jeff Cranson: So, I'll find those various sites and post the links on the show notes so that people can go to those sites to find out what agency's doing what, knowing that it's evolving all the time, but thanks for taking the time to do this Jean, I appreciate it.
Jean Ruestman: Alright, thanks for having me, I appreciate it. Stay healthy.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, you too, and as promised for the third segment today I'm going to be talking with Greg Brunner, who is the director of our Bureau of Field Services which oversees construction, pretty much, across the state, and all levels on the trunkline system, roads and bridges, and we're going to talk about what the precautions, and the advisories, and everything that we're dealing with with COVID-19 might mean to this season's construction. Greg, thanks for taking time to do this.
Gregg Brunner: Thanks for having me, Jeff.
Jeff Cranson: So, just you know to start with, I guess, right now do you see any reason that this will delay any project starts, or anything that we're doing to prep for the season?
Gregg Brunner: As of right now we're going to continue our normal operations and anticipate all of our construction projects will remain on schedule. We're taking precautions as defined by the CDC and others to keep our employees safe and limit their exposure, but you’ll have to remember, a lot of our construction sites out there are people working in the wide open where they aren’t within 6 feet, or those other types of limits that actually apply, so we're following those recommendations.
Jeff Cranson: So, as it is right now, when would you say most projects are really going to begin in earnest? I mean, when will dirt really be flying?
Gregg Brunner: Each project is on a slightly different schedule, but we anticipate within the next month those contractors will be out there working on the project, and we'll have our field folks out there doing the inspections, and just to kind of accommodate some of their operations, you know, we're having them stay in their space, stay away from the larger groups of 50 as recommended, and kind of just do what they do to be safe while continuing to deliver our road program.
Jeff Cranson: Have you've been having conversations with the contractors or their representatives about, you know, what this should mean to them, and their practices?
Gregg Brunner: We continue to work with contractors on a daily basis to be mindful of this, and they have the same thoughts as us on keeping their employees safe while continuing to deliver the construction project programs that we have scheduled for the year.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, and a number of people involved in these projects are consultants that can work remotely if they are doing, you know, the kind of work that involves a lot of computer work, just like the planners, and the other people that are on the front end of these projects.
Gregg Brunner: Right, and MDOT as a whole, we’re highly encouraging our staff to stay home and away from those types of situations where they still accommodate their normal day jobs, so that's ongoing both with us, and in discussions with our consultants out there that are also doing some of the work.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I'm hearing that from people, you know, across the board, all professions. Obviously, many of the state agencies, many of the local government agencies, and many in the private sector, too. So, you know, best-case scenario, things start to get better in the next few weeks, and we look forward to a robust construction season. Some of the projects that are part of the bonding program, the Rebuilding Michigan program that the governor and the State Transportation Commission approved, will actually be launched this year, just really a handful of those, but how are you feeling about our preparation overall for, you know, what's going to be ramping up into a heavier and heavier construction season from that?
Gregg Brunner: Well, since the announcement we've actually been doing an assessment and looking at our program across the board to identify best practices, or things that we can do to deliver, and we're confident that we have a good approach moving forward into this construction season here, and again, we've not only been looking at this from an internal standpoint, but we've been discussing it with our consultant partners, and also with industries themselves just to make sure that everybody is on board and confident that we can deliver.
Jeff Cranson: Are you hearing anything from your contacts in other states, or you know, through various national groups about this? Everybody's probably, I would guess, trying to abide by those same precautions.
Gregg Brunner: It sounds like everyone's taking a relatively similar approach to the precautions that have been given out, and as things come up, new types of issues or concerns we encounter, we actually do, ask our counterparts in other states, other Departments of Transportation, you know, if it's something that's been discussed there, and what they've done moving forward, more or less looking for best practices around the country as well.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, great. Alright well, I think as this summer wears on, because this is going to be an interesting construction season, I'll probably, you know, be talking to you some more about this. For now, I think that's it's helpful to know that with all the things that are being affected and being paused, or at least curtailed, because of the virus, that sounds like rebuilding roads and bridges, which is a pretty important thing in Michigan, will continue.
Gregg Brunner: Sounds good, thank you Jeff.
Jeff Cranson: Okay, thanks again for listening to this week's edition of Talking Michigan Transportation, and I want to give a special thanks to Corey Petee who does the sound engineering for the podcast and to Sara Martin of MDOT who does the show's intro and closing.
Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan's Transportation. Check out show notes and more on Soundcloud, or by subscribing on Apple Podcast.