2017-10-19 / Front Page

Plans Underway For Bridge Walk

Organizers Analyze What Went Right, What Needs More Work in Labor Day Event
By Kevin R. Hess

Turning people away from the Mackinac Bridge Walk this Labor Day was an unintended result of closing the walk to vehicle traffic, and one of the “biggest disappointments” for the Mackinac Bridge Authority, said Bob Sweeney, executive secretary. Loading buses took longer than anticipated, and miscommunication also played a part, he told the Mackinac County Planning Commission during a presentation Wednesday, October 4. The commission wanted to hear Mr. Sweeney’s perspectives, out of concern for business impacts that the changes may have had in the area this year.

To discuss the same topic, the Mackinac Bridge Authority plans a public meeting Wednesday, October 25, at 5 p.m. at the Mackinaw City Recreation Center at 507 West Central Avenue.

More successful aspects of the bridge walk this included averting major traffic backups and a public communication system set up for text messages.

The bridge was closed to passenger traffic this year for 5.5 hours, allowing only shuttle buses and emergency vehicles to cross. Closure, the first in the history of the bridge walk, as a safety recommendation from the Department of Homeland Security and the Michigan State Police.

The event has recently attracted 30,000 to 60,000 walkers, but this year about 25,000 walked the fivemile span.

The changes to the event were significant, and presented several challenges, said Mr. Sweeney. The three areas of concern to the bridge authority were safety and security, traffic backups, and budget impacts. He said preparations included a comprehensive public relations plan. The MBA issued press releases, Mr. Sweeney gave telephone and television interviews, and bridge workers fielded many calls from the public with questions and concerns about the changes. Staffing was doubled, and bridge employees worked an average of 12 hours. Armed Michigan State Police, instead of unarmed National

Guard, were available to keep order on the bridge. In addition, bridge employees, volunteers from Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), and local police, ambulance, and tourist organizations were on hand. Preparations also included courtesy patrols along US-2 and near Mackinaw City, four aid stations with refreshments, and mechanics to assist stranded motorists during anticipated traffic backups.

Organizers planned for backups of up to 10 miles, but traffic congestion was hardly an issue at all, said Mr. Sweeney. The bridge was reopened to traffic at 12:30 p.m. and was moving smoothly by 1 p.m. The aid stations set up to tend to vehicles stuck in traffic were not needed. All of the unused goods were donated to local pantries and organizations.

Securing buses has become harder in previous years, and this year was no different. Mr. Sweeney said that more schools are reluctant to allow their buses to be used because the event happens the day before school begins and they don’t want any unforeseen mechanical problems. In addition, fewer school bus drivers are willing to give up their holiday to work, especially because it is their last day off before the new school year.

Even so, this year, the MBA secured 135 buses, compared to 90 in 2016. To do so, it expanded its search further south to Traverse City, Alpena, and other schools. Because of the strict cutoff time for this year’s event, the MBA wanted to have more buses to allow as many people as possible to walk the bridge.

Twenty-five charter buses were also added. Although more people could fit in a charter bus, there were areas that caused a gridlock because there was not enough room for two charter buses to pass one another. They were also more expensive and required more time to inspect. All drivers had to be properly vetted by authorities before being given permission to drive. The vetting process took place until the final minutes before the event began.

Organizers estimated that they needed to get people on the buses within four minutes in order to get 40,000 people to the starting line, but Mr. Sweeney said they were averaging between five and six minutes. There were also problems with the number of buses that could be loaded at one time. Near the beginning of the event, all of the buses found themselves on the road at the same time, and there were none ready to be loaded.

There were also problems with the arrival times of buses. Mr. Sweeney said this was due to driver confusion, communication issues, weather delays, or a combination of these. The MBA was hoping to have an additional bus area to aid in getting people to the starting line, but there were not enough volunteers or buses to do so.

Participants in Mackinaw City who were waiting to be bused over to St. Ignace to walk were told that they would need to be on a bus by 10 a.m. There were reports of several people who stood in line for multiple hours and still were not able to board a bus in time. One of the problems, said Mr. Sweeney, was that people who had already walked the bridge were getting on the buses, as well, taking up seats that could have been used for starting walkers. This is one issue organizers plan to address.

“One of our major disappointments was missing so many walkers,” said Mr. Sweeney. “We had more than enough buses, but it took too long to load that we missed a lot of people.”

Some of the buses, in addition to plow trucks filled with sand, were used as counterweights to help balance the bridge. Without the normal vehicle traffic, and all the walkers on one side of the road, the span would have tilted and been unbalanced without counterweights on the other half of the road.

In terms of commerce, businesses in the Upper Peninsula seemed to be more affected by the bridge closure, especially on the western end. Mr. Sweeney said they received reports from business owners that people were cancelling or shortening their weekend plans in order to avoid getting stuck in traffic Monday afternoon. The holiday bridge traffic, however, was relatively similar to 2016, outside of Monday, which saw the bridge traffic decrease by almost 10,000 cars compared to last year.

Dean Reid, chairman of the planning commission, shared his concerns, saying that the closure essentially turns a three-day weekend into a two-day weekend, causing many U.P. businesses to lose what is normally a busy day of commerce. He asked Mr. Sweeney if they would consider changing the day of the event to Sunday instead of Monday, alleviating concerns of people wanting to leave on Monday. Mr. Sweeney said that it was definitely under consideration. It was under consideration for this year’s event, too, but because of the short three-month time frame between the decision to close the bridge and the event, the MBA did not believe it was feasible. If the decision were made now, organizers would have nearly a year to plan and work out the logistics.

“We have heard all of those concerns, and we’re going to address them,” said Mr. Sweeney. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to make a decision at our next meeting.”

Potential impact to the rest of the holiday would need to be assessed, also. Businesses on Mackinac Island report the day before Labor Day is the busiest day of their entire season.

Mr. Sweeney was asked if the bridge would need to be closed for other events, such as bridge runs, but he said the number of participants was low enough that it was not considered a concern. A typical bridge run sees a few hundred runners, versus tens of thousands who participate in the bridge walk.

He said the MBA was pleased with the text messaging service it used and they are looking at expanding its use to advise motorists of closures owing to ice or wind. He said the messaging service could have been used better in informing people about when the buses would stop running, but there were concerns about confusing motorists who may misinterpret the message and think the bridge would open sooner.

Organizers will evaluate all of their options for next year.

Following the public meeting about the bridge walk Wednesday, October 25, at the Mackinaw City Recreation Center, the Mackinac Bridge Authority will then meet in the same place Thursday, October 26, at 9 a.m.

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