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#OTGYpsi: Making Washtenaw Avenue safer for Ypsilanti's motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: Study considers new improvements for Washtenaw Avenue in Ypsi, Ypsi Township, Pittsfield Township

ReImagine Washtenaw

MDOT's M-17 Planning and Linkages Study


Cathy Shafran: You're listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community. And we bring you On the Ground Ypsi in partnership with the reporting team of Concentrate Media. Today, our focus is on a three-mile stretch of Washtenaw Avenue between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. It's a stretch of road that, some say, simply gives no regard to pedestrians and bicyclists. Today, I am joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, whose online news site is reporting this week on a major study about what it would take to turn this stretch of Washtenaw Avenue into what's being called a "multimodal corridor." Riley, thanks so much for being with us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Cathy.

Cathy Shafran: What can you tell us about the article?

Rylee Barnsdale: So, the article is coming from the On the Ground Ypsi project manager, Sarah Rigg, who went in and figured out the ins and outs of the next installment of the ReImagine Washtenaw Project. It's a project with Washtenaw County, as well as MDOT, to make the road a lot more accessible to pedestrians on foot, bus riders, as well as bicyclists.

Cathy Shafran: And as part of her reporting, she talked to many people who are all involved in looking at particular issues of what?

Rylee Barnsdale: They're looking a lot at accessibility. So, there's a lot of issues, as far as bike lanes or spaces for pedestrians, both on foot or differently-abled pedestrians as well. There's going to be a lot of opportunities for public input. The study started back in October of last year and is actually going to continue on until October of this year. So, folks are going to have a lot of different opportunities to speak with different project team members about what they would like to see in the updated Washtenaw Avenue.

Cathy Shafran: Okay. Now, in the report in Concentrate Media, Sarah talked extensively with Nathan Voght. He's the Brownfield redevelopment coordinator for Washtenaw County and the ReImagine Washtenaw project manager. And Nathan is joining us right now. Nathan, thanks for being here.

Nathan Voght: Sure. Happy to be here.

Cathy Shafran: What makes this particular project so important for Ypsilanti?

Nathan Voght: Well, this corridor has been around a long time. It's owned and operated by MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation, and their focus has always been moving cars. And if you look at the wide lanes and the lack of crossings and the lack of sidewalks that they never built when they expanded the road, you know, it's not really serving the community. It's serving motorists. And that's important. But what the community said over ten years ago when they formed this coalition for ReImagine Washtenaw is they said we want something more. We want something that that has multiple modes. People should be able to choose this corridor to bike. We should be able to walk safely to access transit. Transit should be able to operate more efficiently and more rapidly and serve transit riders better. And, really, what you notice most is the lack of sense of place, right? It's just not a place that anybody really chooses to be, even though you've got tons of businesses along there right, and tons of services. So, this program is sort of this voluntary coalition of the four communities along there to really transform and change the corridor. And we've done a lot of visioning and a lot of planning. Now, MDOT has come with this kind of initial environmental study to kind of push this to the next level and really set the stage for a major infusion of funding to do a big reconstruct. And so, this process is we're going to revisit some assumptions. We're going to go back to the public, as was mentioned, and we're going to be able to come out of it much closer to being ready to actually transform it.

Cathy Shafran: That's actually one of the questions I wanted to ask you. So, again, we're talking about this stretch of area essentially Washtenaw Avenue, between U.S. 23 and then the water tower by EMU's campus, right?

Nathan Voght: That's right.

Cathy Shafran: And we've been looking at this since 2014 at least. So, what makes what we're talking about now different than the last year's?

Nathan Voght: So, in 2014, we completed a big study that was really important because it did do some traffic modeling we had never done, and it did some public input that we had never done. So, we have a clear vision of what the community wants on a consensus level. This study is a much more detailed environmental review. It's what MDOT is required to do when they spend a lot of federal money to reconstruct a road like this. So, this is like taking us one step closer--one big step closer--to MDOT doing a major reconstruction. And if you've driven down the road, it's in terrible shape. I mean, let's face it. You don't want to drive down this road, much less walk it. So, we're going to be that much closer. And I would expect within two, three, four, or five years. And that's going to have to get the money, and they're going to have to do the reconstruction. So, what the community wants to be a part of this process, make sure our vision doesn't get lost, which MDOT's been great in recently. And, you know, thinking about pedestrians, thinking about biking, but it's still not their main thing, right? So, the community is going to be a part of this process and ensure that, out of it, we don't forget that bike lanes is something the community wants and full sidewalks and some mid-block crossings, so that pedestrians can adequately navigate bus stops on either side of the road and get to the bus stops safely, etc.

Cathy Shafran: You are listening to On the Ground Ypsi on 89 one WEMU. Another question that many people would have who've been listening to these plans over the years is when will we see some action on it? How long will it take to complete the study? And what's the timeline after the study is complete till we can actually begin seeing a change to the things that you've been talking about so far?

Nathan Voght: I think we're a lot closer to actual change than we were just a year ago. What has happened so far is incremental change. For example, we've had sidewalk infill in 2017 east of Carpenter in Pittsfield Township, and then we just did some in Ypsilanti Township, east of Golfside. You know, there was the hawk signal put up near EMU to facilitate students getting to campus safely. And that's part of, you know, the plan--part of the city's plan. But I think, out of this study, what I've been told by officials is that this is, like, a pre-environmental, and it crosses off most of the boxes needed to spend the federal money to do the major, major investment. So, I can only speculate. I do know they're going to reconstruct U.S. 23 interchange. That is actually already programmed, and that's going to be huge for the corridor. And that's happening in three or four years. I would say, within five years, we're going to see something, at least starting east of 23, a major, major investment.

Cathy Shafran: And what will that look like, if your vision, what you're seeing, based on all the input that you're receiving as part of the study, if it were to come to fruition, what would Washtenaw Avenue in that stretch look like five years and beyond five years?

Nathan Voght: So, the community's vision--what the community wants--is a complete street, a multi-modal street. So, we're going to reasonably accommodate bike lanes, bikers, we're going to have a full network of sidewalks, so that the disabled, so pedestrians, can get to bus stops, can get safely just down the road. We're going to have slightly more narrow lanes. The lanes are way too wide or unnecessarily wide for this type of road. So, the lanes are going to be more narrow. We might have a landscape median to kind of do more traffic calming. We're going to have more mid-block crossings. Because if you look at the distance between traffic signals where pedestrians can cross now, it's way too far. It's way too long. So, more mid-block crossings. We're going to have land use. All the communities along here have adopted zoning ordinances that will encourage and require more mixed use, higher density residential, up to the street to create more of a comfortable pedestrian scale, more of like a village shop, like Park One's shopping environment where you can walk to different businesses, maybe activate the sidewalks. So, everything coming together. The land use is much more inviting and much more placemaking. But then the roadway serves more than just vehicles.

Cathy Shafran: And is there anything, at this point during the study period, that the community is being asked to do to add any more input?

Nathan Voght: There are a series of, I believe, four public meetings that you'll be hearing about very soon, starting, I believe, in February or March. And it's a chance for the public to revisit the vision, revisit some of the alternatives that MDOT and the consultant team and the ReImagine Washtenaw coalition are considering. It's going to be some of the same stuff we saw back in 2014, but it's just going to be a refresher. The conditions have changed. Traffic volumes have changed. I'm hoping we can actually do more now than we thought we could do in 2014.

Cathy Shafran: So, the community still has an opportunity to share their input for what this stretch of Washtenaw Avenue is going to look like.

Nathan Voght: Yes, and those public meetings are coming up this spring.

Cathy Shafran: And you'll be letting everybody know about that, I'm sure.

Nathan Voght: Yes. MDOT and the consulting team and all the communities, we're all going to use our networks and get the word out for these upcoming meetings.

Cathy Shafran: Okay. Well, thank you very much. We have been talking with Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale and Nathan Voght, Brownfield redevelopment coordinator for Washtenaw County and ReImagine Washtenaw project manager. We're talking about the study underway to make things better along Washtenaw Avenue for all types of traffic. Rylee, Nathan, I want to thank you so much for joining me.

Nathan Voght: Thank you.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Cathy.

Cathy Shafran: And I want to thank all of you so much for joining us today for On the Ground Ypsi. This is 89 one WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran.

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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