For decades, Oakland County officials have been road-blocked from trying to build a north-south conduit through western Oakland County. But as officials begin realizing this week, the time and energy expended paid off and now the dream is becoming a reality. Yesterday, Tuesday, May 31, crews began construction on the largest modern roundabout in Oakland County to date in Commerce Township, a project that will connect M-5 and Pontiac Trail with Martin Parkway.
Officials with the Road Commission for Oakland County, Commerce Township and the Commerce Township Downtown Development Authority (DDA) held a ground-breaking ceremony on Friday, May 20 to christen the project.
Most of the roundabout will be two lanes, but there will be three lanes at the north end. The project will convert a signalized, three-way intersection — the northern terminus of M-5 at Pontiac Trail — into a roundabout accessible from four directions.
The contractor for the project, Tony Angelo Cement Company of Novi, began working in earnest yesterday, Tuesday, May 31.
“Crews are putting up signage to notify (motorists) of the project and installing signs for detours,” said Giffels-Webster Engineer Mike Polmear, who helped design the roundabout.
Pontiac Trail will be closed between M-5 and Welch Road (to the west of the intersection) as of June 19. Pontiac Trail east of M-5 will remain open, and traffic will be permitted to travel from northbound M-5 to eastbound Pontiac Trail and from westbound Pontiac Trail to southbound M-5.
“But (traffic) will be reduced to one lane in each direction,” said RCOC Spokesperson Craig Bryson.
Traffic will not be permitted to travel from eastbound Pontiac Trail to southbound M-5 or from northbound M-5 to westbound Pontiac Trail starting June 19. At that time, the detour route for traffic will be Welch Road to Maple Road to Haggerty Road and back to Pontiac Trail, and vice versa.
Local businesses will remain open during the road closure.
“Walmart has accessibility from the east and there are limited businesses on Pontiac Trail, but M-5 won’t be blocked off at Maple,” said Commerce Township Supervisor Tom Zoner. “However, northbound (M-5) motorists will only able to go east.”
AT&T and Detroit Edison are conducting utility work at the intersection to connect utility lines running along Martin Parkway to those along M-5 and Pontiac Trail. The RCOC closed the outside westbound lane of Pontiac Trail at M-5 on May 6.
“The utility companies will clear out by the time the roundabout closure is in place,” Bryson said.
Access to the Commerce Township Library will be affected by the roundabout construction. Currently there are two access points to the library: one driveway that leads from the library to Pontiac Trail, and a second entry from Walnut Lake Road that intersects Pontiac Trail and also provides access to the adjacent Walmart. The driveway will be closed permanently, according to Polmear. Once Martin Parkway opens as a public roadway, the library will then gain a second entryway.
“There will be a second access to the library from Martin Parkway once the roundabout is built,” Zoner said.
The $5 million roundabout project is expected to be completed by Nov. 1. Funding for the project comes from a variety of sources: the Commerce Township DDA is contributing $2.2 million, the RCOC is contributing a little over $1 million and Oakland County is contributing $360,000 through the Tri-Party Program. Additionally, a $1.5 million Michigan Transportation Economic Development Fund (TEDF) grant was awarded to the project in connection with new jobs being created at the nearby Homedics, a seller of personal health, wellness and relaxation products, which is working on an expansion of its international headquarters on Pontiac Trail west of Haggerty Road.
The RCOC is assuming responsibility for overseeing construction of the roundabout.
“We applied for the TEDF grant, so the RCOC is building it, but the DDA is financing it,” Zoner said of the roundabout project.
Initially the DDA took on construction of Martin Parkway as a means to relieve traffic congestion in the area and to provide access to DDA land slated for retail and residential development.
“We have always looked at it being a prime piece of property. With the right development, it could be a lifestyle or commercial entity,” Zoner said of the DDA land located north of the M-5/Pontiac Trail intersection. “We changed it to a Planned Unit Development (PUD) zone so we can virtually look at anything like condos, hotels, restaurants … and we have more liquor licenses now that we can hand out. We want a high-end development.”
The scope of the Martin Parkway project involved constructing a four-lane boulevard extending Martin Road south from PGA Drive to meet M-5 at Pontiac Trail; and building five lanes from PGA Drive north to a roundabout at Oakley Park Road. Most of the project was completed in 2009.
“There are still several hundred feet incomplete, but it will be done in conjunction with the roundabout project,” said Commerce DDA Director and Township Planner Kathleen Jackson. “The final (layer of asphalt) needs to be completed and then connect with the new roundabout.”
Costs were pegged at $80 million for acquisition of the 350 acres of property north of the M-5/Pontiac Trail intersection, in addition to road projects including a trio of roundabouts at Martin Parkway/Pontiac Trail/ M-5; Martin and Oakley Park roads; and PGA Drive and Oakley Park.
“Funds were used for water lines, sanitary sewers, storm sewers and cutting down trees also,” Zoner said.
To finance all of the projects in total, $80 million in bonds were sold. According to Jackson, some of those bonds are 30-year bonds, while others are variable and fixed-rate bonds.
The next phase is under way to construct what to date is the county’s largest roundabout, an effort which represents the bulk of the lengthy effort to improve the flow of traffic through the area.
“It’s the last link and a major component,” Polmear said.
“The project will alleviate traffic dumped on Pontiac Trail,” Jackson said. “It’s a place to disburse (traffic) and we won’t have gaps or vehicles stopping so it keeps traffic moving.”
The roundabout and Martin Parkway projects are crucial to the DDA’s plan to develop the DDA property between M-5 at Pontiac Trail and Martin and Oakley Park roads, where local officials hope an array of businesses will start up or relocate. Over 800 new residences are also part of the overall plan for the area.
But there is also a safety component to the roundabout, according to Oakland County Board or Road Commissioners Chairman Eric Wilson, who praised the township’s efforts to bring the project up to this point.
“This roundabout will improve traffic flow and safety in this area while also providing access to Commerce Township’s Downtown Development Authority district, which should stimulate economic development,” he said.
Of the 350 acres of DDA-owned land in the area, only about two-thirds are viable to build upon due to wetlands and paths.
“About 125 acres have engineered stormwater retention ponds with different elevations so that the possibility of neighboring properties flooding is zero,” Zoner said. “It’s also a nice habitat for animals and fauna.”
Township officials say they have a plan for the usable land’s economic development.
“We have a market-driven plan for next year where a hospital, hotel and/or retail will begin to develop the property — that’s the ultimate goal,” Jackson said. “However with the economy, we may get corporate developers or open it up to other modes of development.”
And while lakes area and county officials are looking to the future of the community, it’s important to understand the lengthy and — at times — contentious path that had to be taken to reach this point.
When I-275 was being planned decades ago, it was intended to extend north beyond it’s current terminus. Officials wanted the north-south freeway to blow right through the lakes area and tie into I-75 near Clarkston.
However, opponents voiced a variety of environmental concerns to get that proposal blocked.
“Back in the 1980s or early 1990s when MDOT (the Michigan Department of Transportation) applied for funding for the M-5 Connector, it only requested funding up to Pontiac Trail,” the RCOC’s Bryson said. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cited the ‘segmentation rule’ that essentially says you must apply for the full scope of the project at one time and can’t come back later for funding. At that time, the federal government — the EPA particularly — made it abundantly clear that no state trunkline would continue north past Pontiac Trail.”
Despite the EPA’s ruling, state and local officials continued to seek alternatives to move traffic north and south through western Oakland County, an area that was in the middle of an unprecedented growth spurt.
After a myriad of studies, it was determined that M-5 would be extended north to Pontiac Trail, but the EPA, citing environmental impact statement findings and its previous opposition to the original I-275 plan, only approved an M-5 extension contingent on a pledge that M-5 would never extend north further than Pontiac Trail due to the slew of lakes and wetlands that would almost certainly be destroyed or severely disrupted in the process.
So Commerce officials, along with thousands of lakes area motorists, were stuck with M-5 dead-ending at Pontiac Trail, a scenario that dumps over 30,000 additional vehicles a day into the area. Yet Commerce Township and DDA officials weren’t deterred, and they brainstormed a plan to move traffic through the community while minimizing the traffic gridlock along nearby Haggerty Road.
Commerce officials were able to get around the EPA ruling since “Martin Parkway is considered a local road instead of a regional road that only distributes traffic in the immediate vicinity,” Bryson said.
The DDA purchased the Links at Pinewood and El Dorado golf courses and extended the existing Martin Road through these properties to tie into Pontiac Trail at M-5.
MDOT held a small easement on the north side of Pontiac Trail at M-5 and — fearing that the EPA would slap their hands for being a party to an extension of M-5 north beyond Pontiac Trail — wouldn’t give up rights to the easement to build what’s now called Martin Parkway, the extension of Martin Road.
The RCOC was pivotal in clearing that hurdle and Martin Parkway was built, but the question then became focused on what to do with a congested intersection of M-5, Martin Parkway and Pontiac Trail.
The answer: a modern roundabout.
“We’ve wanted to improve the intersection since M-5 was built,” Bryson said. “It’s congested during rush hour and the roundabout will improve the traffic flow at the intersection; and roundabouts are inherently safer than an intersection.”
While many motorists are intimidated by the proliferation of roundabout configurations, they are designed with safety and environmental concerns in mind.
“While many people are uncomfortable driving them, more roundabouts are being converted from signalized intersections and that’s a good thing due to safety,” Giffels-Webster’s Polmear said.
According to Polmear, studies indicate that there are less conflicts with the continuous traffic movement of roundabouts. There’s also a 40 percent reduction in accidents in a roundabout configuration compared to a signalized intersection, which translates into 70 percent fewer injury accidents and 90 percent fewer fatal accidents.
There’s also less damage to the environment with roundabouts.
“You’re not sitting and idling at a red traffic light waiting for it to change,” Polmear explained. “There’s less fuel consumption and lower vehicle emissions at roundabouts vs. signalized intersections.”
Polmear added that the public should rally around the roundabout construction.
“Besides safety, they offer more capacity and less traffic congestion,” he said. “The long-term result is a much more efficient roadway.”
The DDA plans to market its land holdings along Martin Parkway to developers in order to pay off the approximately $80 million in bonds issued to pay for the road extension and roundabout projects.
Commerce Township’s DDA is financed through tax increment financing (TIF), which even in a depressed economy is still expected to collect upwards of $2 million per year.
“In this state taxable values are depleted,” Zoner said. “The DDA collects in excess of $2 million a year. With revenues coming in, we could subtract bond indebtedness by that alone, but otherwise that could be subsidized by township funds.
“Suffice it to say we have the ability to financially pay off the bonds. DDA and township projections show we can pay off the bondholders,” Zoner said.
“We plan to pay off the bonds with TIF capture dollars, with the sale of property and with the increase from TIF due to new development,” she said.
The DDA’s 2010 budget proposal included expenditures to complete Martin Parkway and the new roundabout. Some members of the Commerce Township Board of Trustees were concerned about continuing to spend money on the projects and adding to the community’s overall debt obligation, and sought to put the project on hold.
“Some wanted to hold the money rather than spend it, but the money can’t be used for principal and interest so when it became clear from bond counsel that we couldn’t essentially do anything else with the money, the board felt comfortable enough using the funds,” Jackson said. “Besides, we needed to get this project done.”
The debt service payment — including interest and principal — is about $3.5 million per year. The DDA’s TIF is estimated to capture at least $1.8 million this year.
The tax capture is based on the estimated winter 2010 and summer 2011 tax collections within the DDA district.
“We have money in the account right now for the roundabout,” Jackson said. “The DDA and township board are working together to meet the commitment we’ve made, but hopefully we’ll just sell the property and offset it with TIF capture funds — that’s how it’s supposed to work, in theory.”
As a means of keeping business owners and residents in the loop when it comes to project details, the RCOC sent out letters to those in the project area, including those situated along 14 Mile, Oakley Park, Haggerty, Welch roads and some areas of West Bloomfield Township.
However, business owner Marc Robichaud of Midwest Mobility, an AT&T retailer situated in the center of the project area on Pontiac Trail between M-5 and Haggerty Road, said he hasn’t received any notification from the road commission. Yet, he said he still champions the roundabout project.
“I’m sure it will affect my business, but it’s worthwhile overall,” he said. “The congestion right now is a negative as it is. My customers complain that’s it’s hard to get in and out, and though business will worsen over the next three months, ultimately it will improve traffic flow in the long run.”
The RCOC has no plans to hold a public informational meeting on the project.
“People impacted aren’t from one area, so it’s harder to hold a meeting that reaches everyone,” Bryson said. “We are counting on the media to spread the word.”
Bryson added that there will be only one road closure in place for the duration of construction. However, if the situation changes, the RCOC will send out press releases and keep people posted on its website at www.rcocweb.org, and its Facebook and Twitter pages.
Zoner is also ensuring people are informed by posting updated information at the Commerce Township Hall and the library entryway, in tandem with daily messages on the township’s website at www.commercetwp.com.