Is anything ever going to be done about the viaduct?


Rental truck stuck in the viaduct on August 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of Samantha Wesley.

By Doug Marrin

Trucks getting stuck in Dexter’s viaduct is funny, until it’s not.

Long-time Dexter resident Barb Fike was on her way into town for an appointment the last time a truck got stuck in the viaduct.

“I had to reroute through Westridge subdivision to Dexter-Pinckney to Island Lake to Wylie Road to Dexter-Chelsea and finally back to Main Street,” she said. “This happens all the time, and it’s pretty frustrating.”

Barb and many other drivers might not be as frustrated if it weren’t for Charles Warner’s cow that calved on Sunday morning, March 20, 1887. You probably know the story. When Charles didn’t attend church that morning because of the calving, his parents became concerned. They walked northwest out of town on Main St. to check on their son. While crossing the railroad tracks, Mrs. Warner was tragically struck and killed by a train. Dexter residents petitioned the Michigan Central Railroad to build a bridge to prevent further tragedy. The railroad assigned its brilliant young civil engineer Fredrick Pelham to build two new bridges for the location—one over the road and the other a few hundred yards further over Mill Creek. If it weren’t for that cow, Dexter would probably have a street railroad crossing similar to Chelsea’s that could be widened and have no height restrictions.

Memorial plaque in Mill Creek Park that overlooks Pelham’s bridge that was researched by Wylie Elementary School 4th-grade students (2017-2018). Photo by Doug Marrin.

See online article: Then & Now: The Brilliant Young Engineer Behind Dexter’s Famous Stone Viaduct

Talk to the old-timers, and they’ll tell you trucks have been getting stuck in the viaduct built for horses and buggies (but still big enough for two full-size pickups to fit side by side with room to spare) ever since trucks have been big enough to get stuck. And it’s been funny to watch. But everyone knows you can tell a joke until it is no longer funny. People have wanted a solution for years.

The February 2, 2006, edition of the Dexter Leader reported the Village receiving more than $400,000 a year in additional revenue from the Local Development Finance Authority. A list of ways to spend the money was quickly made. A new viaduct made the list of possibilities (as did a new fire station). Trustees at the time estimated the cost of a new viaduct to be more than $11 million. The money ended up being used to remove the decaying Mill Creek Dam and create a city park from the drainage.

“This has been going on for years,” said Barb. “Is anyone ever going to do anything about it? Are the truck drivers even ticketed? Why can’t warning signs with flashing lights be installed to warn away trucks?

All good questions.

Solutions for fitting a square truck in a round viaduct have been tossed around for years. One idea is to construct a new road from the end of Parker to the intersection of Island Lake and Dexter-Pinckney. One big problem with that, other than building a road, is that the route would bisect the historic Gordon Hall property, ruining the whole historic preservation idea. Another solution bandied about is digging out a bigger, adjacent viaduct on the A&W side. No reports yet as to whether anyone has checked with A&W to see how they feel about that.

Regarding solutions, Emily Kizer, Spokesperson for the Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC), says, “This is a complicated topic.”

One proposed bypass is constructing a bypass from the end of Parker Rd. to the intersection of Island Lake and Dexter-Pinckney roads. Image by Google, edited by Doug Marrin.

Let’s begin here: The viaduct is not in the Dexter City Limits. The road underneath is owned by WCRC. MDOT Office of the Rail owns the viaduct. In addition, the area is a vortex of strangely drawn boundary lines.

  • Westridge Subdivision, just beyond the railroad tracks, is within the city limits.
  • The historic Gordon Hall property, also just the other side of the tracks, is in Webster Twp.
  • The Cedars Retirement Community behind Gordon Hall is within the city limits.
  • A&W, American Legion, and Dexter-Chelsea Rd are in Scio Twp.
  • Mill Creek Park is within the city limits.
  • Main St. Bridge over Mill Creek is not in the city limits.
  • The empty lot (proposed Mill Creek Brewery) across Main St from the American Legion is in the city limits.

With all these municipalities and agencies clustered together, responsibilities quickly overlap. And don’t forget, we’re talking government processes here. Ms. Kizer may have understated the issue.

And that’s just the logistics. Then, there’s the cost. “There are no current plans to reroute traffic around the viaduct,” says Kizer. “In the past, there have been various concept drawings floating around, but all were very, very expensive and without a funding source.”

Michael Frezell, Media Relations for MDOT Office of Rail, echoes Kizer. “Currently, we have no plans to reconstruct or substantially rebuild the bridge as it is structurally sound and historically significant. To address the vertical clearance at this location, the structure would either need to be raised, or the Washtenaw County Road Commission would need to lower the road, or a combination of the two. Any work on the road would be the responsibility of the local road agency.”

Another idea is to dig out a bigger viaduct where A&W is located. Neither bypass concept has garnered any serious attention. Photo by Doug Marrin.

“Raising the structure would require a substantial investment to maintain its historic nature,” adds Frezell. “Several geometric constraints, such as proximity to an existing railroad curve and the distance the rail would have to be reconstructed (in both directions) to provide adequate grades for high-speed passenger rail operations. Trains are not tolerant of sharp grades as much as cars.”

So, we’re stuck like a truck in a viaduct when it comes to anybody doing anything about it.

Regarding truck drivers being ticketed, Director of Community Engagement for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, Derrick Jackson, explains, “Most of the deputies have and would likely write a ticket for impeding traffic. Deputies also write an ‘Over Height’ ticket for striking the bridge.”

Jackson also says, “These crashes create an issue in another way. We have to contact the Railroad Company each time so they can have the structure inspected prior to allowing any trains to cross.”

Since the viaduct is a couple of good stone throws from Dexter’s downtown and oddly sandwiched between city limits, the City of Dexter takes the brunt of complaints about it. City Manager Justin Breyer explains.

“Island Lake Road via the viaduct is one of the few primary east-west routes in Washtenaw County. It also serves as the primary vehicular access for many area residents into downtown, such as those living in the City's Cedars and Westridge neighborhoods and those living in the townships west of the City. The City receives numerous questions about the viaduct, but since it is not within the City's jurisdiction, we direct folks to contact the Washtenaw County Road Commission.”

What’s the solution, then? It seems like after a couple of generations of truck drivers getting their tops lopped off, word would get around to stay away. To that point, people have observed that most stuck trucks seem to be rentals with novice drivers who probably have no idea of the truck’s height. They can’t possibly know the bridge’s reputation as they approach its stone arch bulwark and decide to just go for it.

Frezell says, “It also should be noted that this bridge is currently marked with the height restrictions, and it is the responsibility of all drivers to know the height of their vehicle and plan their routes accordingly.”

Maybe Frezell is on to something here. We can put more energy into redirecting truck drivers. People are already on board with that idea. Each time an incident occurs, folks on social media direct their comments more and more to the drivers. More calls for warning systems are being raised. A quick internet search shows the problem of trucks hitting historic bridges is far and wide. So much, so that specialized warning systems have been developed with height sensors and flashing LEDs if the vehicle is too tall. Newark, DE, recently installed a set of loud clankers that strike over-height vehicles and "wake up drivers" to the low bridge.

So, similar to those Dexterires of 135 years ago, social media is our petition today. This article, too, calls on those agencies who can do something to do so. Until then, I’m afraid we also are stuck watching history repeat itself every few days.

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