GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — US-131, I-96 and I-196 in West Michigan are typical of many highways in heavily populated areas of the state: They tend to back up during evening rush.
All that waiting in traffic costs more than frustration.
“Many estimates from outside organizations say that we spend $120 billion because of congestion, but it costs you and me, the average household, $1,700 a year sitting in traffic,” Jeff Cranson, the director of communications for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said.
All that idling is also bad for the environment, he pointed out.
So when the state moved forward with plans to rebuild a portion of US-23 north of Ann Arbor, officials decided to experiment with a way to move traffic during peak periods by using the existing shoulder. They call it a Flex Route.
“Some states call it hard shoulder running,” Cranson said. “Basically, it takes a shoulder and converts it to a travel lane at certain times of the day.”
Here’s how it works: A gantry above the roadway will display real-time traffic information, including speed and hazard warnings. A lighted green arrow means the Flex Route is open and a red X means it’s closed.
“US-23 north of Ann Arbor makes perfect sense because in the morning, there’s a lot of traffic going in to Ann Arbor and in the afternoon, there’s a lot coming out. For some of those hours in between, not so much,” Cranson said.
State officials say the Flex Route allows the state to experiment with a way to reduce congestion without paying to build another dedicated traffic lane. That would cost taxpayers an estimated three to four times the $90 million bill for the US-23 Flex Route.
The lanes also serve as a temporary fix as smart vehicle technology continues to evolve.
“Someday, you won’t need those signs overhead because your car will talk to you and say, ‘This is what you should do now on this road,'” Cranson said.
So if the experiment works near Ann Arbor, could it happen here in West Michigan?
Cranson said it a matter of cost and the priority for the region.
“They would have to look at the whole region program and where else the money is needed across West Michigan and decide of that’s a priority at some point,” he said. “Maybe someday if this works and this model has success, US-131 both north and south of Grand Rapids could be a candidate.”