The Talking Michigan Transportation podcast features conversations with transportation experts inside and outside MDOT and will touch on anything and everything related to mobility, including rail, transit and the development of connected and automated vehicles.
Recruiting and training to build transportation infrastructure as a “Sansdemic” looms
This week on the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with two people deeply involved with recruiting, developing and training the infrastructure-building workforce.
Even before the pandemic-induced phenomenon known as the Great Resignation, employers in many sectors were struggling to find and retain employees. This certainly applies to the skilled trades.
First, James Fults, who manages MDOT’s workforce programs and recruitment unit, talks about efforts specific to department jobs. Later, Lee Graham, the executive director of the Labor-Management Education Committee for Operating Engineers 324 (OE324), who have been building in Michigan for more than 100 years, talks about their work.
President Biden put a spotlight on the OE 324 training center when he visited earlier this month.
Fults explains his unit’s work is mostly focused on five general job categories that have been challenging to fill: transportation maintenance workers, mid-level engineers, technicians, electricians, and surveyors. Acknowledging that the pandemic exacerbated a talent shortage that already existed, he attributes much of the problem to a dearth of younger workers to fill the jobs of retiring baby boomers, a phenomenon now knows as the Sansdemic.
Fults also touts his unit’s other programs, including the Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program, highlighted in the July 28 podcast.
Later, Graham talks about his organization’s years-long efforts in workforce development and training and the focus on expanding opportunities through programs like Access for All and the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund.
Speaking about President Biden’s visit to the training center, Graham outlines why he thinks the bipartisan infrastructure legislation is so important to Michigan.
Graham and OE 324 talk to students as young as kindergarteners to develop an interest in construction and modern building equipment and technology.
Graham highlights the Operating Engineers work, on both sides of the border, to build the Gordie Howe International Bridge. He also talks about other high-profile structures, including stadiums, arenas, and downtown high rises, his members helped build.
A stationary engineer offers a testimonial in this One OE 324 member profile video.
Podcast photo: President Biden visited the Operating Engineers 324 training center in Livingston County on Oct. 5, 2021.
Meet the patient, witty and always engaged MDOT social media administrator
On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Jesse Ball, who coordinates social media at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).
Ball talks about his background, growing up in the Upper Peninsula, graduating from Michigan State University, then working in California and Michigan media markets. In 2008, he became MDOT’s first social media administrator.
Understanding that without engagement, social media is just media, Ball talks about the importance of connecting and going beyond one-way communication.
The department’s Office of Communication puts an emphasis on transparency and sharing information for people to understand often complex transportation challenges. Ball explains the satisfaction he draws from correcting misinformation and providing fact-based answers.
Because transportation touches everyone’s life everyday with so much work being done in plain sight, it is to be expected that people will have many questions and comments. Ball talks about working with people across the department - Planning, Finance, engineers in Transportation Service Centers across the state - to gather accurate and timely responses to myriad questions.
He also explains his random Van Halen reference in a recent Facebook conversation.
US-23 freeway reopens to traffic after emergency repairs on railroad bridge
The busy US-23 freeway south of Ann Arbor, closed more than two weeks because of safety concerns about an overhead railroad bridge, reopened to traffic Tuesday morning (Sept. 28).
Craig Heidelberg, engineer of operations at MDOT’s Brighton Transportation Service Center who worked with the contractor doing the repairs and helped oversee the project, talks about mobilizing quickly so the freeway could be open again.
As explained by Matt Chynoweth, MDOT chief bridge engineer, on a Sept. 16 edition of the podcast, a truck hauling a piece of construction equipment hit the railroad bridge on Aug. 20, tearing the bottom flange of one of the two main girders.
Davis Construction won a 10-day emergency repair contract on Sept. 23. Davis crews completed heat straightening operations last Thursday and a prime coat on the beam cured over the weekend. Crews repaired the bottom flange Monday.
Heidelberg talks about the work involved in repairing the bridge and working with multiple community leaders and safety forces, including the Ohio Department of Transportation, to communicate the need to avoid the route while repairs were being done.
Podcast photo: Ann Arbor railroad bridge above US-23 near Milan.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer puts Michigan in the driver's seat for electric vehicle charging
This week on the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, following two important announcements from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer solidifying Michigan’s commitment to electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, a conversation with two of the people helping to make the ideas a reality.
First, Elsa Givan, an analyst at Silicon Foundry who is working with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, will talk about why this is a leapfrog moment for Michigan and the future of automated and electric vehicles. In a second segment, Michele Mueller, a senior project manager at MDOT, explains the Request for Proposals (RFP) process.
On Tuesday, Sept. 21, while participating in the opening ceremony at Motor Bella, the governor announced an initiative to develop the nation's first wireless charging infrastructure on a public road in the U.S. The development of a wireless dynamic charging roadway in Michigan is a step toward addressing range anxiety and will accelerate the transition to all-electric transit fleets in Michigan and beyond.
On Wednesday, Sept. 22, at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Mackinac Policy Conference, the governor followed up with two related announcements:
A “Lake Michigan EV Circuit,” a charging infrastructure network along Lake Michigan to support the region's tourism industry; andAn initiative to prepare Michigan's workforce for automotive mobility and electrification jobs and career pathways. Givan explains why these EV announcements represent a leapfrog moment for Michigan and what other states are doing in the charging realm. She likens the charging initiative to the Cavnue project, suggesting this project gives Michigan the ability to rapidly accelerate its electrification strategy by adopting a technology on the five to 10-year mass-adoption horizon.
She also predicts that as automated EVs become the national standard, consumer expectations will shift toward complementary automated charging infrastructure, unlocking massive time and cost efficiencies for commercial freight, public transit, and private transportation.
Underscoring the economic and work force development imperative, Givan says that in order to “own the future of mobility, Michigan must place bold bets on electrification innovation.” Projects like the Electric Avenue signal to the private sector that the state is the most conducive and supportive environment nationwide for EV companies to launch and scale their businesses, which in turn leads to new high-paying jobs in the mobility sector and economic growth.
Later, MDOT’s Mueller joins the podcast to explain her role in overseeing the RFP for the wireless charging roadway concept. She explains why Michigan offers a holistic and supportive environment for developing charging technology and the collaboration among several state agencies.
Mueller also touts MDOT’s other pioneering efforts in mobility like Mcity at the University of Michigan and the American Center for Mobility as effective examples of those partnerships.
Because the RFP process encourages creativity and allows for developing innovative solutions, the expectation is for a number of companies to seize the opportunity to try out their concepts.
Mueller further underscores Givan’s comments about the value of this process providing myriad opportunities for companies here in Michigan to utilize and test their technology in a live environment.
Podcast photo: Elsa Givan. Photo courtesy of Silicon Foundry.
Another bridge hit, another freeway closed
Last week, after inspectors discovered severe damage to a bridge that carries rail cars over the US-23 freeway near Milan, Michigan, engineers made the difficult decision to close the road and pursue emergency repairs. The damage came to light upon a more in-depth inspection of the bridge that revealed severe structural damage from a high-load hit involving a truck traveling underneath in late August.
As Pew Trust research underscored in 2019, “so-called bridge strikes occur all over the country when trucks or their loads are too tall to pass under highway bridges and overpasses. They damage valuable infrastructure, create epic traffic jams and can be hazardous for other drivers who may be pelted with fallen debris or forced to swerve into another car.”
Matt Chynoweth, chief bridge engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), joins the podcast to explain the sequence of events and why the busy freeway needed to be closed. He also talks about the bridge engineers’ efforts to move quickly on emergency repairs, acknowledging the inconvenience to commuters who rely on the freeway every day, as well as freight haulers traveling farther north or south on the freeway.
The bridge is owned by the railroad and is important to the movement of freight. It is more than 80 years old, pre-dating the conversion of the original two-lane US-23 into a freeway. Chynoweth explains why the jurisdiction for railroad bridges is different than vehicle bridges that carry local roads over or under state-owned highways.
As of the podcast recording on Thursday, Sept. 16, MDOT officials were waiting to open bids and award a contract for the emergency repairs necessary to make the bridge safe for vehicles to pass underneath.
Chynoweth also talks about the importance of truck drivers planning their routes and obtaining permits for oversize loads. In Michigan, a permit is required for objects and/or vehicles at 13 feet, 6 inches or higher.
Michigan Bridge Height Poster
Measuring bridge conditions across the country and progress in Michigan
Coming off the successful return of a cool Michigan tradition, the Mackinac Bridge walk on Labor Day, this week’s podcast revisits the condition of our state’s other bridges and some creative proposals to fund replacement and repair of state and local structures.
First, for some national perspective, a conversation with experts in performance management and bridge conditions at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO): Patricia Bush, AASHTO’s program manager for bridges and design, and Matthew Hardy, AASHTO’s program director for planning and performance management.
Later, Matt Chynoweth, chief bridge engineer at the Michigan Department of Transportation, talks about a pilot bridge bundling program for local agencies. An MDOT dashboard tracks the progress.
Bush explains why terms for bridge conditions, like structurally deficient and functionally obsolete, were abandoned, with discussion now focusing simply on conditions being good, fair or poor. She also talks about the condition of the nation’s bridges, overall, and what goes into decisions to close a bridge. Bush cites the decision to close a Memphis bridge in May after inspectors found a crack in the steel structure.
Hardy explains how performance management informs decisions and why all states must use the national bridge reporting measures. He also lays out the reasons for following asset management principles in making decisions about a transportation network.
Offering a focus on Michigan bridge conditions, Chynoweth explains how a decision two decades ago to focus on asset management has helped conserve resources and address state-owned bridges more efficiently. He also talks about some major bridge projects MDOT engineers are tackling this summer, including a bridge over M-55 near Manistee, which MDOT Director Paul C. Ajegba visited this week.
Podcast photo: MDOT Director Paul Ajegba talks to engineers at the M-55 bridge site near Manistee, Michigan.