ALGOMA TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- When you're driving into a freeway construction zone and traffic is shifted all the way over to the other side of the highway, experience tells you that you're going to drive on one lane against an immovable concrete wall, and traffic going the other way is also using only one lane. It's just the way things are done.
In the construction zone on US-131 from 10 Mile to 14 Mile. All traffic is currently shifted to the northbound side, with three lanes available. Each weekday and then once on the weekend, a special machine picks up the concrete barrier and moves it over.
That means that southbound drivers during the morning commute have two lanes to use in the construction zone, and traffic is seldom slow. Then, during the afternoon commute, northbound drivers get to go through construction in two lanes. On the weekend, the barrier is moved midday Sunday to free up two lanes for southbound traffic coming back from Up North and for Monday's commute.
The machine is called the Road Zipper by the company that owns it. The name is appropriate, since the process is like the action of a zipper: As the Road Zipper slowly rolls along, an arm picks up the linked pieces of the concrete barrier. Rubber wheels guide the barrier links under the machine and place them back on the roadbed 12 feet to the right.
But there's nothing zippy about the job of moving a concrete barrier. On the day we watched the machine at work, the crew arrived around 9 a.m. It takes a team of five: two crew members -- one at each end -- are steering. The rest of the crew performs various functions, all with the goal of perfect placement of the barrier.
And there's very little room for error. At one point, there was some sort of hitch in the process, and Road Zipper was stopped about a mile into the job. Several times, the team backed it up and inched forward, backing up and inching forward. This is why four miles of barrier can take several hours to move.
During the hours of the day and night when the Zipper is not in operation, it's easy to drive through the construction oblivious of the innovation -- and meticulous work -- needed to reduce traffic jams in the zone.
This is only the second time a machine like the Road Zipper has been used in Michigan. It made its first appearance in a project the Bay City area.
Free-flowing traffic is only one benefit to this new idea. It shaves a full year off the time the US-131 project would take. "What we determined is without a road zipper, to do this project, you would have to do it over a two-year span, which would be two different summers," said MDOT assistant construction engineer Tanya Pawlukiewicz, who is the manager of this project. "We knew that we had to do something to expedite the project, because the motorists and the commuters on 131 had to deal with construction last year, and they had to deal with road construction this year … If we would have asked them deal with it for another year, I think they would have been a little upset."
"It's a great time-saver and a big money saver," said MDOT Grand Region communication representative John Richard.