Clearing the way for U.S. 31 extension causes trouble for neighbors

NOW: Clearing the way for U.S. 31 extension causes trouble for neighbors

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- It’s a project 40 years in the making – connecting the U.S. 31 bypass in Benton Harbor to I-94 and finishing plans originally made in 1981.

Now, the project is finally expected to complete in just two years, but fires being burnt to create the freeway’s path are now causing grief for its neighbors.

“No matter which direction the wind would shift the people in this area were getting covered with smoke, it was like a heavy fog out here,” said John Mundt, a resident of Britain Avenue in Benton Harbor for 47 years.

Smoke and flames covered Britain for over a week as the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) got underway with clearing the way for the bypass extension.

But residents caught in its path said the fires just started one day with no warning.

“I have asthma, if they would’ve notified me that they had to do this I could’ve been gone for awhile,” said Mundt. “And during that last rain storm they were still burning, well the ground’s dry enough who knows what fires they could’ve started.”

Mundt and his wife suffer from respiratory issues and have had to put out eight air purifiers since the burning began because the smoke was so heavy it became unbearable both in and outside their home.

“If we have an order to shelter in place for everybody’s wellbeing and health, how can we shelter in place if we have this to deal with?”

MDOT said they’ve now been made aware of the problem and are working to burn in a safer manner.

“We are clearing the way to connect U.S. 31 up so we’ve got some cutting we have to do – the burning specifically, our contractor had permission to burn on site and I was contacted by a resident who had been suffering though a couple days of smoke, so once we told the contractor about that he was able to do some shifting ,” said Nick Schirripa, Communications Representative for MDOT’s Southwest region.

But after 40 years, the project still needs to be finished, and this path is best for both the local ecosystem and economy.

“We started construction back in 1981 and it continued up until 1991 when the Mitchell’s satyr butterfly was listed as a federally endangered species, so we had to slow construction quite a bit because it was going to cut right through that habitat,” said Schirripa.

And now, with new funding and a new blueprint, the project can finish.

The construction will provide a 30-mile connection from both the I-80/90 Toll Road in Indiana as well as I-196 and 31 in Berrien County to I-94 – all while avoiding the Blue Creek Fen, home to those butterflies.  

Plus, a new Britain Avenue bridge over U.S. 31 – that part of the $122 million investment is what’s putting residents in the line of fire now.

While MDOT assures the project still has value —

“There are plenty of folks in Southwest Michigan who commute to Indiana daily for work, or people from Indiana who conversely come to Michigan on a regular basis, that’s a pretty critical corridor, it has value,” said Schirripa.

Some wonder if there’s a point after all these years —

“First off, reevaluate whether or not they need to actually complete it, but the main thing is be more responsible, keep people informed - people won’t complain that much if they’re informed,” said Mundt. “Let us know what’s happening so we can make a choice on whether or not to disappear some place or find a way to muddle through it.”

MDOT says the project will be finished by winter 2022 and asks residents with complaints throughout the process to bring those to their attention.

A list of all projects covered in each phase of construction can be found here: https://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9621_11008_92734---,00.html

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