Shoulder test near Ann Arbor could come to a highway near you

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — An experiment allowing Michigan drivers for the first time to legally drive on a highway shoulder could lead to similar efforts across the state.

Advocates say that the use of advanced technology could prevent accidents, ease congestion and save millions of dollars in construction costs statewide.

Drivers were recently allowed to drive on the shoulder of a stretch of U.S. 23 during rush hour, an option labeled a flex route.

It is the first of its kind in the state and is essentially an initial experiment, said Kari Arend, a media representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

“We will be watching it closely to see how it operates and hopefully eventually adding it to other locations across the state,” Arend said.

Among them is a stretch of Interstate 96 in Oakland County and U.S. 131 near Grand Rapids, places officials say have high congestion similar to U.S. 23.

Savings from the use of the highway’s existing paved shoulder instead of building larger highways can reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Arend said

The U.S. 23 flex route opens up the highway’s inside shoulders between M-14 and M-36. That’s  roughly north of Ann Arbor and through Whitmore Lake, one of the state’s most highly congested highway stretches.

The shoulder is open only 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Motorists are alerted of its availability by overhead signs.

Green arrows mean the shoulder is open. A red “X” marks its closure. Yellow arrows alert drivers to merge to avoid traffic accidents. Other signals alert drivers of speed limits.

The flex route also opens during traffic accidents to allow traffic to more easily bypass them.  

Virginia and Minnesota have similar systems that have been successful, Arend said. MDOT looked at these states to see what could be feasible in Michigan.

Police say they hope they improve safety.

“We’re hoping there’s going to be less crashes because traffic is going to flow better,” said State Police Lt. Mario Gonzales of the Brighton post.

Stop-and-go traffic at these times leads to more rear-end collisions, especially when it slows down quickly during rush hour, Gonzales said.

“With these flex lanes, when they’re open, traffic is not going to have those choke points and that’s going to flow better and hopefully reduce those rear end collisions,” Gonzales said.

That would be helpful.

Almost 30 percent of all Michigan crashes occur on state and federal highways, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning. And there were slightly more than 83,000 rear-end collisions in the state last year, according to the crash data.

Why not keep the shoulders open all the time?

It has to do with the definition of a shoulder, Arends said, because it’s not a “true lane.”,” Arend said.

To add a third lane, the state would have to widen the road and add a shoulder too, costing millions more.

The flex route is part of a $92-million update of roads and bridges along U.S. 23. Without it, the cost of improvements would be close to $200 million, Arend said.

The biggest concern for police is educating people on the rules of the lane.

Drivers could still drive in the flex route at all times, though Gonzales said police would be monitoring the route more heavily. Drivers who pull into the shoulder during noon rush hour times could be at risk if another driver were to use the shoulder illegally.

Illegal use of the route falls under illegal lane use and would put two points on a driver’s record and a $135 ticket if the driver is caught.