2008-08-30 / Top News

More Than 50,000 Expected To Walk Mackinac Bridge Monday

By Karen Gould

This year marks the 50th time walkers will cross the Mackinac Bridge on Labor Day, and although the Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) is expecting fewer walkers Monday, September 1, than the 57,000 who made the five-mile journey over the Straits last year, it is preparing for similar crowds.

After a traffic gridlock in Mackinaw City last year, when cars and shuttle buses became snarled as walkers tried to leave town after their walk or cross the bridge to begin their walk, the MBA began working on a plan to improve traffic flow.

"There were simply more vehicles than could flow in and out of that community," said Bob Sweeney, executive secretary of MBA.

The new plan calls for free parking in St. Ignace, free shuttle buses from the parking area in St. Ignace to the start of the walk, police traffic control at the M-108 US-123 intersections in Mackinaw City, and more buses to transport walkers across the bridge.

"We feel this is going to solve all of our congestion problems that we had last year," Mr. Sweeney said. "We still know that we are going to have congestion, we are going to have back-ups, both north and south on I-75, across the bridge, but as far as getting the people that are participating in the walk to reasonable wait times, we feel that these four measures will accomplish that."

The MBA is encouraging walkers to park free in St. Ignace at Little Bear East Arena and then take a free shuttle to the start of the walk.

Once across the bridge, walkers can take private transportation, returning to St. Ignace and their vehicle, or the authority offers rides on school buses ride for $5. Once they arrive on the north side of the bridge, walkers then can hop on the free shuttle and return to their vehicles parked at the arena.

Alternatively, walkers can park free throughout Mackinaw City and in paid parking lots, and hop a shuttle to the St. Ignace side to start their walk.

More school buses, 120 instead of the 100 used last year, will transport walkers this year, and will come from as far as Grayling schools to assist with transportation.

After considering establishing one-way traffic on some Mackinaw City streets, it was decided that bus movement and traffic flow routes could not be improved. Putting more police at the most critical intersection, M-108 and US-123, is hoped to alleviate the traffic bottleneck.

Last year's crowds are in part attributable to the highly publicized 50th anniversary celebrations and a new state law requiring public primary and secondary schools to begin classes after Labor Day.

Certificates handed to those who cross the bridge will indicate this is the 51st bridge walk. The first walk was held in June 1958, during summer ceremonies celebrating the opening of the bridge. The structure was open to traffic November 1, 1957.

Visible preparations for the walk were set into motion more than two weeks ago, when crews began setting up fencing to mark off the starting area at the administration building east of the toll plaza in St. Ignace.

Before the bridge walk begins, a bridge run will be offered by the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness, Health, and Sports for prequalifying runners.

At 6 a.m., wheelchair participants who want to participate in the run, called wheelers, runners, and early walkers begin gathering at the administration building. This year, three registered wheelers will begin the day's event at 6:35 a.m. The first group of runners will begin at 6:45 a.m. About 285 runners will take part in the race.

About 5,000 people will gather at the administration building by 6:30 a.m., as they plan to start the walk at 7 a.m. when two lanes of traffic are open to walkers heading south across the bridge.

At approximately 6:55 a.m., Governor Jennifer Granholm will address the crowd before starting her run across at 7 a.m., followed by thousands of walkers. By 8 a.m., the crowd beginning the walk will be smaller.

Walking the bridge takes about 90 minutes.

By 9:30 a.m., passage for walkers is reduced to one lane. This allows for more lanes available for vehicle flow. Two lanes are open for southbound vehicles and one lane is reserved for northbound traffic.

The walk ends by about 11 a.m.

Last year, as a result of the traffic snarl, at 11 a.m., people were still waiting to board buses in Mackinaw City for the ride over to St. Ignace to begin their walk. Under the circumstances, walking hours were extended until 3 p.m.

Typically, said Mr. Sweeney, walkers come from every state and some foreign countries. A group from Japan is planning to walk the bridge this year, along with foreign exchange students from Germany and Sweden. Also, this year he has received e-mails from those in other countries who have walked the bridge in the past, who are not able to attend now, yet they want to offer good wishes for those making this year's walk.

The Walk

Baby strollers and wheelchairs are allowed during the walk, although bicycles, roller skates, skateboards, and wagons are not permitted. Banners and flags also are prohibited. Pets are not allowed, with the exception of seeing-eye dogs.

Two lanes on the east side of the bridge will be used by walkers until 9:30 a.m. and then the far east lane is reserved to those walking the bridge. The lanes on the west side will be used for motor vehicles. There are no restrooms on the bridge, although portable toilets will be located at the start and finish of the walk.

Walkers will begin their hike at the north end of the bridge in St. Ignace and end in Mackinaw City. Those coming from the Lower Peninsula can drive to St. Ignace and park in designated areas west of the toll plaza or at Little Bear East Arena, and for $5 per person, ride a school bus back across the bridge to their cars.

Another option is to board a school bus in Mackinaw City and ride north, and then walk the bridge. School buses stop at Conkling Park on South Huron Avenue in Mackinaw City and begin transporting walkers at 5:30 a.m.

Bus transportation ends at 2:30 p.m.

As participants leave the bridge, they will receive a numbered certificate to commemorate the accomplishment. Merchants in St. Ignace and Mackinaw City will display numbers in their store windows and those with matching numbers will be offered a prize.

The Michigan National Guard will be stationed along the bridge. Law enforcement agencies on patrol will include Michigan State Police, U.S. Coast Guard and auxiliary group, and area police agencies including St. Ignace, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Police, Mackinaw City, and officers from Mackinac, Emmet, and Cheboygan counties.

The Federal Aviation Administration forbids all aircraft from flying within 3,000 feet of the bridge.

Early Boats Planned for Bridge Walk

Arnold Transit Company and Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry will offer early boat departures to and from Mackinac Island and the mainland for the walk. The boat lines will shuttle walkers to Little Bear East, where they can take a bus to the start of the bridge walk.

Shepler's will depart the Island for St. Ignace at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. A boat will leave Mackinaw City for the Island at 5:30 a.m. for connection to the St. Ignace boat. A boat will leave St. Ignace for the Island at 6:30 a.m.

Arnold Transit will offer special boat departures from the Island to St. Ignace at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., with a boat leaving St. Ignace for the Island at 6:30 a.m.

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