There's heavy traffic these days on I-75 and I-96 near the Ambassador Bridge.
Heavy trucks. Heavy concrete mixers. Heavy cranes.
And every so often, a tank truck tools by, spraying water on exposed dirt to keep the dust down.
Cars? None, other than those belonging to construction workers, supervisors, and inspectors. Buses? Only Kid Rock's, during a video shoot last week.
To those tens of thousands who drove it regularly before Feb. 25, when a Michigan Department of Transportation contractor began building a new interchange complex where the two freeways and the bridge plaza come together, I-75 is practically unrecognizable.
Sure, the trench that divides Detroit's Mexicantown neighborhood is still there. But the 10 or so lanes of freeway that occupied it have been obliterated, and four bridges that crossed it have vanished.
In their place squats all manner of heavy construction equipment, punctuated by the beginnings of an extensive new interchange that will, among other things, end the neighborhood-streets excursion that for decades has confounded Ambassador Bridge travelers headed toward Toledo or other southerly destinations on I-75.
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Spiking up from the middle of it all is a 150-foot tower, leaning at a crazy but deliberate angle, that will be the pylon for a cable-stayed pedestrian bridge reuniting Mexicantown's two halves. It will provide a visual highlight for freeway travelers too.
"It's nice that they're fixing it up around here," Dave Ruhle, a carpenter foreman from Shields, Mich., said between directing workers on the Vernor Highway overpass, the one bridge in the work zone that is being rehabbed rather than replaced.
"The locals are trying to take a little pride now in the area too," Mr. Ruhle added, remarking that work-zone graffiti tagging has been less than might be expected for an urban area.
Victor Judnic, the Michigan Department of Transportation engineer in charge of the $230 million I-75/Ambassador Gateway project, said Wednesday that the project was about 55 percent complete.
While that's ahead of the schedule that the Walter Toebe Construction Co., of Wixom, Mich., must meet to reopen I-75 by December, 2009, the odds of finishing in time for the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four at Detroit's Ford Field in April are slim.
"We're looking at late summer or early fall to reopen I-75," Mr. Judnic said. There's only a "very slight chance," he said, that Toebe Construction can do it by April and collect a $5 million bonus for a Final Four reopening.
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One little bit of traffic relief will occur much sooner, the MDOT engineer said. Sometime this fall, perhaps by the end of this month, a new ramp onto southbound I-75 from the service road south of Vernor will open.
Though the direct ramp from the Ambassador Bridge to southbound I-75 won't open until the freeway does, the service-road ramp will bypass most of the existing route through Mexicantown's western side.
"I'm crossing my fingers that we'll get it done before we get bad weather," Mr. Judnic said.
How quickly the rest of the project opens depends in part on how quickly the privately owned Ambassador Bridge proceeds with related construction on its property, he added. The Ambassador Bridge Co. is spending about $40 million to modify its Detroit approaches to meld with MDOT's construction.
For the duration of its work, MDOT is detouring I-75 traffic via I-275 and either I-94 or I-696. The department chose to close
I-75 on the grounds that the best it could do was maintain one lane of traffic each way, which would have had minimal benefit while doubling the project's duration and increasing its cost.
While only 2 1/2 miles of I-75 and I-96 are being rebuilt, the new interchange will feature nine new bridges, including the one that will loop around like a question mark from the Ambassador's border crossing and toll plaza to feed southbound traffic onto I-75.
Many of them will be built using curved steel beams that require a precise sequence for installation.
"It's pretty interesting," said Brad Stover, of Royal Oak, Mich., the project manager for the Toebe firm. "It's taken a lot of work to put this thing together. But we're finally setting steel for our first bridge here."
Mr. Ruhle was one of the workers who saw Kid Rock arrive at the site Tuesday to point out scenes he wanted included in an upcoming music video.
"He had a whole camera crew. He had a big bus he was riding in," Mr. Ruhle said.
And like Mr. Stover, Mr. Ruhle said the Ambassador Gateway will be one of the most memorable projects in his construction career.
"It's one of the more unique I've worked on," he said. "Everything I've done out here has been different - there isn't one thing that's the same."
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