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Engineers News: Operating Engineers 324 and the I-94 Expansion in Kalamazoo

The sidewalk running along the Kilgore Road bridge in Portage is showing its age. Broken concrete, rocks and glass litter the walkway directly above traffic passing under it on I-94. Even with the lanes shifted, this traffic moves at a minimum of the posted 45 mile per hour speed limit – and often faster as motorists ignore the work zone warnings. Motorists below have no idea how badly the bridge above them has deteriorated, or the dangers that could await if something isn’t done about it – and soon.

But something is being done about it. At the end of this year, the Kilgore bridge over I-94 is scheduled to be demolished and removed altogether. It is part of an $87 million project underway in Kalamazoo now. The project, being worked on by M&M Excavating and Toebe Construction, will widen I-94 in the area from four to six lanes, includes a new interchange configuration to be built at Portage and Kilgore Roads, and the repair of several bridges along with the removal of the current one.

It is one of the dozens of projects taking shape across Michigan as greater resources – and money – are dedicated to rebuilding the infrastructure that has been neglected for too long in the state. This kind of work is necessary to address serious risks like those presented by dilapidated roads and bridges like the Kilgore Road overpass. And by awarding the work to M&M and Toebe, the kind of work that will be done correctly, with the best trained workers using the right materials.

M&M Superintendent Brad Miller has spent 42 years working on Michigan’s roads, including almost 30 as a Superintendent, and he is glad to see the increased dedication to infrastructure – and equally glad to have Operating Engineer 324 members to do the work. Currently Miller has 17 Operators under his watch, “running excavators, haul trucks, GPS dozers, loaders, graders, just about everything.”

“The service drives are the worst (shape),” explains Miller, when asked why the project has started there. “We’ve got tight deadlines, but good folks.” He went on to call a few OE324 Operators out for being exceptional, including job Steward Tim Babcock.

Tim has 22 years’ experience as an Operating Engineer with OE324 and can usually be found running a finish dozer. This day, however, he was operating an excavator pulling concrete on one of the aforementioned ramps. He agrees that the infrastructure work is long needed and is glad to see it increasing. Not only for the work itself, he explains, but also for the careers it provides.

“It keeps people working for a career. The infrastructure is old and outdated and needs to be rebuilt. But the work brings in younger people, and having younger people entering the trade is a good thing,” Babcock explains. “We (OE324) have one of the best training sites in the country, and our Operators are safe.”

“It takes years to learn to be good, so it’s great to have projects like this where younger people have a chance to work. We have Danielle Athey here, and she’s great. She was Apprentice of the Year this year, and she is a great person to show women in particular not to be intimidated, and that they can do this work.”

Toebe Construction has Operators working on their part of the project as well, explains Toebe Superintendent Terry Holley. Toebe is doing bridge, paving, and sound wall work, and Holley already has several Operators working for him that have impressed.

“Kevin Hicks, Mark Johnston, Steve Fanko and Clarence Crummey – all are really good, experienced Operating Engineers,” says Holley. “This is a two-year project with major traffic shifts, so having good Operators to do pile driving, crane work, and demolition is important.”

Not having quality Operating Engineers “can cost a ton of money real fast,” explains Miller. “We have forty-plus pieces of expensive equipment. It’s important that we get the quality Operators (OE324 can provide)”

Julian Arreola is another of these Operators. “I’m doing lateral, laying the pipe for shorter sections. It’s almost all new,” he explains, “we’re setting trenches and putting in storm pipe.”

Julian worked non-union for some years before joining OE324, and a more grateful Operator would be hard to find. The differences between union and non-union to him offers “no comparison.”

He proudly talks about what being part of the union has meant to him: a real pension, fair wages, and knowing that he has quality healthcare for his family not only through the working spring, summer, and fall, but also through the winter when work is less plentiful. Julian has a young family and appreciates that working union “means we are a single income family. It allows me to provide for my family, and with one income so that my wife can be home with our kids. So many people can’t afford that – both parents have to work just to survive. Being in the union means we can do well with a single income.”

Julian points out one other major difference that is often overlooked – the effect that being union has on productivity and efficiency. “Working union means I don’t have to waste my workday worrying about whether I’m going to get paid fairly or if my insurance is going to be a problem. I can focus on my work and do the best job possible.”

For M&M Foreman Paul Wcisel, it is a little bit of all the above. Paul has been an OE324 member for 24 years and is heading up the pipe crew Julian is part of. Paul says that when a contractor gets an OE324 Operator, “they get someone with knowledge, with experience. They get someone who has had access to that great training center we have.”

A 4th generation Operating Engineer, Paul also encourages the younger Operators and Apprentices to learn all they can on the job site.

“I say, have an open mind and always listen, look, and learn,” says Paul. “Always treat your machine like you would your house or your car. Have respect for it.”

Paul also appreciates the opportunity to rebuild much needed infrastructure. “We’re building a better road for the future, so it’s safer and better.”

Julian lives in the area and agrees.

“I live in this area. I drive in this area. This project is going to help traffic, and it will help people travel safer. I’m just glad to be a part of a project like this.”

There are projects from Marquette to Monroe like this one taking shape, and many of them have Operating Engineers 324 members moving them forward. For the veterans, like Paul and Tim, it’s a chance to add even more projects to the list of accomplishments they’ve been part of. Its also a chance to keep Michigan moving forward, and finally tackle so much of the infrastructure work that has been so lagging for so long.

But they also recognize that the more projects that are going, the more opportunities are available for the next generation to find their passion as Operators and master their skills.

“I always say, ‘If you’re good, you’ll get better, and if you’re better, you’ll always have work,” says Paul. “These projects give young people the chance to do that.”