East Lansing, MI – Michigan State University has long had a traffic problem related to the railroad tracks that cross the southern part of the campus. Every day, trains block north-south traffic at MSU, creating an annoying and potentially dangerous situation.
Now, those days are over.
Today Farm Lane reopens, with two new underpasses sending vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians under those train tracks.
(sound of train passing overhead)
The sound you just heard is one not many have heard on the Michigan State University campus a freight train going overhead as you stand along Farm Lane.
What's missing is the clang of warning signals, since you don't have to stop here anymore. It's relatively quiet; I actually ran to see this freight train to make sure one had really gone over my head.
Sending traffic under the Farm Lane railroad tracks has been a dream for decades.
"The campus is divided by the two rail lines that cut through our property, and those rail lines combine to generate about 60 trains per day," says Jeff Kacos, director of campus planning at Michigan State. "So, that equates to somewhere between three and five hours of traffic delay each day."
Kacos says work began to find the money for this project over seven years ago.
"The final tab comes to $42,500,000," Kacos explains. "Approximately half that money is coming from outside sources. There was a large allocation in the federal highway bill. There also was a grant from the state in the Jobs Today program. And, there has been a contribution from the railroads as well. Those funds altogether totaled about $20,000,000. That means MSU had to come up with the other $22,500,000."
Improved safety is the primary benefit of the project.
Mike Rice is the assistant chief of police at Michigan State. A 40-year veteran of the department, he's long worried about trains blocking emergency vehicles on Farm Lane and other nearby crossings, on Hagadorn Road to the west and Harrison Road to the east. As a patrol officer years ago, he remembers waiting for a train while trying to respond to a call of a baby having trouble breathing in a Spartan Village apartment. The baby made it, but the experience made a big impression on him.
"Having Farm Lane open, so that there's always an access for police and fire south of the railroad tracks is actually a dream come true for emergency responders," says Rice.
Maybe the biggest safety issue on Farm Lane has involved students trying to walk from a major parking lot on the south side of the campus to their dorms and classrooms north of the tracks. Rice says impatience with waiting for a stalled or parked train has often led pedestrians to climb over the couplings between rail cars, or scramble under cars, even dragging bicycles under trains.
"While we never had an issue where someone was injured in that," Rice adds, "that's obviously a situation that's fraught with peril, and just scared everybody."
Before this project started, about 10,000 vehicles and countless pedestrians and bicyclists were using Farm Lane every day. Now widened to four lanes, with dedicated bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways on both sides, it's likely that the road will be even busier.
While Farm Lane is reopening, there's still work to be done. Kari Arend of the Michigan Department of Transportation says temporary pumps will be used to keep water out of low-lying areas while work continues on the installation of a permanent pumping system.
"With Farm Lane now being lowered as much as 30 or 40 feet in some places," Arend explains. "We need to make sure that that water had a place to go, so those pump houses are designed in heavy rain situations to basically pump that water out, so either Farm Lane or Service Road won't flood."
The Farm Lane project has taken longer than officials had hoped, close to a year and a half. That's a long time to have a major road shut down, but officials at MSU think the wait, and the expense, have been worth it.