WARREN, Mich. - As the work stoppage on critical road construction projects enters its third week, there is considerable progress being made in negotiations.
Contractors locked out union operating engineers after they refused to negotiate with the trade group that's handled contract negotiations for generations.
There are encouraging signs that the stalemate can at least move a little by putting engineers back on the job. Whether they come back and resume the project on I-696 with a contract is in question, but for Metro Detroit drivers, it can't come soon enough.
The engineers who run the heavy equipment stored their gear weeks ago, starting a lockout.
Drivers who had to navigate massive detours past empty construction zones were infuriated.
"A lot of stop-and-go," a driver said. "A lot of people getting frustrated out there. You can tell by the way people are driving."
"I have to go 53-59 to get over this way and it takes an extra half-hour, 45 minutes," another driver said.
For the first time in nearly a month, there's optimism the situation can end.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's office stepped into the middle of the situation to insist it mediate some kind of settlement to move construction along.
There have been individual talks between Snyder's office, MITA and the operating engineers, but there have been no face-to-face talks.
"The sooner, the better," a driver said. "It never should have happened in the first place, this delay. They should have worked this out ahead of time, before they started this."
Talks are ongoing Wednesday afternoon.
The governor's office is running the mediation but is not helping to negotiate a new contract. Instead, it is simply trying to figure out a way to get everyone back to work so they can get as much done as possible before winter.
Snyder said the contract negotiations can be dealt with in the winter, which will require the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association and the union to speak with each other directly.
Here's the full statement from the governor's office:
"The state has been talking to both sides in the road-building dispute – the Operating Engineers 324 and MITA – in an attempt to help them build a framework for an agreement that will get everyone back to work. We are pushing hard to have this discussion and an agreement expedited because Gov. Snyder understands motorists’ frustration over these stalled projects.
"We have a historic amount of road funding available this year, and in subsequent years that amount will go even higher. Gov. Snyder wants both sides in this dispute back to work as quickly as possible to end this serious and unacceptable delays. These public works projects have been neglected for decades before Gov. Snyder took office and forced a discussion about road funding increases; now it's time to stop the bickering and get them done.
"In regard to Mayor Fouts’ letter, in checking with MDOT, I have been told the I-696 project was not scheduled for completion until late November. It’s important to note then that the existing closures on I-696 would have been in place right now even if the road building industry was not having this dispute with itself. It’s also unclear what declaring an emergency would actually do to change anything in this situation."
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