Woodward crossing improvements coming
By Kevin Elliott
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will add a traffic light and pedestrian crossing signals to a dangerous crosswalk in Birmingham where two people were killed while attempting to cross the street.
Birmingham city officials have pleaded with the state transportation department to address safety concerns at Woodward and Forest/Brown. The crossing, which includes a marked pedestrian cross walk, but no pedestrian signals. In August of 2020, Wesley Stamps was struck by a vehicle while attempting to cross Woodward at Forest. In September of 2021, a Birmingham woman was fatally injured while attempting to cross the state highway. Police said both victims were attempting to cross Woodward against the traffic signal. However, city officials have pointed out the lack of a signal on the northbound lanes of Woodward, making the crossing a perilous endeavor.
Assistant city manager Jana Ecker said the city has requested assistance from MDOT for nearly a decade in hopes to improve safety at the crossing. Because Woodward is a state highway, maintenance and improvements fall under the jurisdiction of MDOT. Legally, the city can’t install safety improvements or traffic calming devices.
“The city has asked MDOT in the past — a least as far far back as seven to 10 years — for improvements at this intersection,” Ecker said. “There’s been discussion about studying it and nothing has been done. We talked to MDOT in the summer prior to the second fatality to study it and make it safer for pedestrians.”
Ecker said MDOT eventually scheduled a meeting with city officials in October, just two weeks after the second fatality. City officials said MDOT officials initially sought to reschedule that meeting due to rainy weather. However, the meeting did take place at the insistence of the city. Suggestions by the city included highly visible fluorescent crossing flags, additional signage, lighting and pavement markings as immediate remedies.
“When we left that meeting, we asked MDOT for a temporary, immediate solution that they could put in place within a week,” Ecker said. “That didn’t happen.”
Birmingham City Commissioner Clinton Baller earlier in October, acting as a private citizen on his own behalf, purchased safety flags and placed them at the crossing.
City officials also reached out to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, state legislator Rep. Mari Manoogian and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow to put additional pressure on MDOT to respond to the city’s requests. McMorrow’s office responded on October 4, noting in a letter that MDOT has committed to studying the area, and asked the city to look into landscaping and lighting at the intersection.
On Monday, October 25, officials with MDOT spoke to city commission members to lay out plans for addressing safety at the crossing, which will include new signaling and signage. Further, Birmingham approved upgraded lighting installed by DTE Energy, with approval from MDOT.
Laurie Swanson, with MDOT, explained that the state only installs pedestrian crossing signals if pedestrian counts at the location sustain enough foot traffic. She said those numbers had not been high enough to validate improvements, until now.
“I think people don’t use it because they don’t feel comfortable,” Swanson said. “I told our technician to ‘count until you get the numbers.’ So, the week of October 15, we did the counts we needed and immediately sent those to Lansing.”
Swanson said engineers are now in the process of designing an updated crosswalk, which will include beacon lighting at four points crossing Woodward, and a new pedestrian-activated signal across the northbound lanes of Woodward.
“It’s a top priority for the department,” Swanson said, which will. take about eight months to design, prior to construction.
In addition to longterm plans, the city is taking steps to improve safety at the crossing, with the consent of MDOT. Those improvements include updating lighting to LED bulbs at the crossings along Woodward between Maple and Lincoln. Ecker said the city and DTE will replace the current bulbs with brighter lights. Further, the specific crossing at Brown/Forest will receive additional lighting beyond the other intersections. The lighting is expected to cost $23,340.
Additionally, the city will expand on the safety flags at the crossing, including additional flags and efforts to educate the public about the use of flags. Lastly, Ecker said the city’s engineering and police department looked at the landscaping in the median area to ensure there weren’t any obstructions for pedestrians and motorists, as well as lighting obstructions.
Pedestrian flags are utilized by using about 10 flags at each crosswalk. Containers holding the flags are attached to signs or utility poles. Pedestrians then hold the flag to draw attention to themselves while crossing. The practice is used in various cities throughout the country, including Salt Lake City; Berkeley, Calif.; and Seattle.
City commissioners expressed thanks for moving on the project, but also voiced their concern about the dangerous crossing.
Commissioner Stuart Sherman reckoned the intersection to a MDOT’s version of the Flint water crisis.
“You were notified of a problem intersection and nothing happened. Then somebody died, and nothing happened. Now somebody else has died. And now, after being pushed, now we are getting something done,” Sherman said. “The only difference between Flint and Benton Harbor and us is that we are going to put some money into making things better while you guys figure it out. While we are on an expedited basis, we have been dealing with this for a long time, and you need to understand that it’s a problem and it needs to be resolved. Here, we can do something about it. Other communities may not be able to. We are doing it because MDOT dropped the ball.”
Commissioner Mark Nickita encouraged MDOT officials to reconsider the role of Woodward in walkable communities, such as Birmingham and Ferndale, which have pedestrian-friendly downtowns that are divided by Woodward Avenue.
“In Ferndale you can go 35 mph, and can actually park on Woodward. Why can’t we do that here?” Nickita questioned, noting that Birmingham long-term plans encourage increased pedestrian activity.
Commissioners unanimously approved budgeting funds for and enter a contract with DTE to replace lighting along Woodward, as well as seeking approval from MDOT for flagging the crossing.
Swanson said under the state’s funding formula, the funding for longterm improvements will include an 80-20 percent split between the federal government and state, with the state paying 20 percent, and the city responsible for 2 percent of the state’s 20 percent. An estimated budget isn’t yet available.