Ypsilanti

Study considers new improvements for Washtenaw Avenue in Ypsi, Ypsi Township, Pittsfield Township

Improvements targeted for a segment of eastern Washtenaw Avenue could include new buffered bike lanes and more consistent sidewalks, as well as converting adjacent streets from one- to two-way.
Improvements targeted for a segment of eastern Washtenaw Avenue could include new buffered bike lanes and more consistent sidewalks, as well as converting adjacent streets from one- to two-way.

A Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) study kicked off in October and will run through this October. PEL studies are designed to consider environmental, community, and economic goals early in the transportation planning process, and use study findings to inform the environmental review process of a transportation project. The study is the next step in Washtenaw County's Reimagine Washtenaw plan, released in 2014, which examines the stretch of Washtenaw between US-23 and Summit Avenue, near Ypsilanti's iconic water tower.

The PEL study project is a collaboration among the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), Washtenaw County, and all the municipalities along the designated stretch of Washtenaw: Pittsfield Township, the city of Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township. Architecture, engineering, and planning firm OHM Advisors is also contributing to management of the project.

Bonnie Wessler, director of public services for the city of Ypsilanti, says the original process that created the Reimagine Washtenaw plan was "born from the realization that this stretch of Washtenaw doesn't work."
A pedestrian crossing Washtenaw Avenue.
"It's congested and full of accidents, and it's not great for pedestrians," Wessler says. "There are as many gaps as there are sidewalks, and [wheelchair] ramps are not consistent."

She notes that there have been several incidents in the last five years in which "people attempted to cross Washtenaw and lost their lives for the trouble." The stretch is even worse for bicyclists, she says, and buses get hung up in traffic as well.

"From pedestrians to freight traffic, we're looking to make the road work better for everybody who needs to use it," Wessler says. 

Nathan Voght, brownfield redevelopment coordinator for Washtenaw County and Reimagine Washtenaw project manager, says that during the public input sessions that led to the 2014 plan, bicyclists made it clear they wanted a more direct route between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti than the Border to Border Trail.
Reimagine Washtenaw Project Manager Nathan Voght on Washtenaw Avenue.
"Most bicyclists aren't comfortable taking Washtenaw, and maybe not even Packard because there aren't any bike lanes," Voght says. "We're asking bicyclists to go three or four miles out of the way. They deserve infrastructure so they can have a direct route just like cars do and can get to work and use the mode they choose."

Mike Davis, an MDOT regional planner who is serving as project manager for the study, says PEL studies weren't an option in 2014 when the Reimagine Washtenaw plan was first released and haven't been used in Southeast Michigan until now. Davis says the study was funded by state and federal planning funds, but there's no budget for construction of whatever plan is developed yet.

Changing the configuration of Washtenaw would require an environmental analysis anyway, so getting that out of the way early with a PEL paves the way for the project to move ahead more quickly once construction funding is secured.

"This study type allows us to take in local planning efforts, like Reimagine Washtenaw, and advance it one stage in its development," Davis says.
A new sidewalk and bus stop on Washtenaw Avenue.
Currently, the PEL study team is gathering data on factors including existing facilities, bus ridership, and which areas have heavy traffic or are prone to car crashes. 

Eric Dryer, a senior planner with OHM Advisors, says his firm has done similar studies, but they weren't quite as complex as the needs identified in Reimagine Washtenaw.

"This one is more unique, more complex, because of that complicated multi-modal aspect of it," Dryer says. "The goal is to find a preferred design for Washtenaw Avenue that meets the goals of the community and improves safety."

Voght says the county's job is to coordinate all the partners and to ensure the community's vision for multi-modal transportation is honored.
A protected bike lane on First Street in Ann Arbor.
"The idea is to transform from an auto-oriented, unwalkable, unsafe corridor to something more vibrant, more place-making," Voght says. He notes that, while MDOT is a great partner in the Reimagine Washtenaw plan, the state agency is primarily focused on moving vehicles through an area as efficiently as possible.

"Instead of thinking in terms of how many vehicles move through the intersection, the smarter approach is to think about how to move more people per hour through the corridor, and the best way to do that is going multi-modal," Voght says. 

As part of Reimagine Washtenaw, the city of Ypsilanti is looking at restoring two-way traffic on nearby Hamilton and Cross streets, which are currently marked as one-way. Wessler says one-way streets were very popular in the '60s and '70s to accommodate increased vehicle volume from downtown to the freeway.

The emphasis was on getting cars through town quickly at rush hours. But work styles and shifts have changed, creating less need for those one-way roads.
An old sidewalk on Washtenaw Avenue.
"At that time, they very much planned for cars when they should have been taking a wider perspective," Wessler says.

Voght says the overall vision is to create "beautiful, comfortable spaces in developments where people can live right next to transit and don't necessarily have to have a car."

An advisory group made up of local residents is also overseeing the effort. There will be opportunities for public input at nearly every stage of the process.

MDOT's page with information about the PEL study and opportunities to comment can be found here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.