In the wake of some troubling incidents on the Mackinac Bridge (involving people climbing a tower or otherwise accessing the bridge to take photos and another involving a bomb threat that closed the bridge on a busy weekend and disrupted travel for hours), the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill, 99 to 6, classifying the Mackinac Bridge and other vital structures as "key facilities." The designation means trespassing on the structures is a felony offense.
This week on the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, first, a conversation with the chief sponsor of House Bill 5315, State Rep. John Damoose. Later, Patrick "Shorty" Gleason, chairman of the Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA), explains why the MBA took the rare step of adopting a resolution in support of the legislation.
HB 5315 would add the Mackinac Bridge to the list of key facilities, as well as any movable bridge in the state: the Zilwaukee Bridge, the Rouge River Bridge, the MacArthur Bridge, and all international crossings, including the Ambassador Bridge, the Blue Water Bridge, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, and the International Bridge.
Gleason also talks about a separate motion adopted by the Authority in opposition to Senate bills 1014 and 1078 concerning the transport of farm equipment across the bridge on I-75.
The motion reads:
"I move that the Board agree that the MBA's Bridge Director and this Board's Special Committee acted in good faith by thoroughly evaluating whether the proposed bills regarding farm implements could be modified to become bills that this Board could support. In the end, these individuals determined that the proposed bills and variations of them, if signed into law, would compromise the structural integrity and operations of the Mackinac Bridge and the safety of motorists who travel on the Bridge. They accordingly recommend, for these reasons, that the Board oppose the proposed bills or variations of them. I so move for the Board's agreement and support."
Jeff Cranson: Welcome again to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson.
Cranson: In the wake of some troubling incidents on the Mackinac Bridge involving people climbing a tower or otherwise trying to access the bridge to take photos, and another involving a bomb threat that closed the bridge on a busy weekend and disrupted travel for many hours, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill, 99-6, earlier this year, classifying the Mackinac Bridge and several other vital structures in the state as key facilities. The designation means trespassing on these structures is a felony offense. This week, the Mackinac Bridge Authority took the rare step of weighing in on pending legislation. They adopted a resolution in support of House Bill 5315. First, I'll be speaking with representative John Damoose about why he sponsored this legislation and felt it was so important. Later, I'll speak with Mackinac Bridge Authority chairman, Patrick “Shorty” Gleason, about why he felt it was so important to adopt the resolution and support. He will also talk about a separate motion adopted by the authority in opposition to another piece of bridge related legislation. Here today as promised with representative John Damoose, who is from Harbor Springs and represents the tip of the mitt and a little bit of the Upper Peninsula. Is that right, representative?
John Damoose: That's right, and thanks for having me on. It's the two counties below the bridge and two counties above the bridge. And of course, the bridge itself is in my district, which is something I’m just so proud of.
Cranson: And that's why we're talking today. You obviously have constituents that depend on that bridge.
Cranson: Obviously, it goes beyond your district—all of us care about that bridge. We are so proud of it in Michigan that we stamp it in our license plates.
Damoose: Absolutely. The bridge is Michigan; it's our iconic feature. Everybody loves it.
Cranson: Yes. So let's talk a little bit about House Bill 5315, which you sponsored, passed overwhelmingly. 99 to 6 in the House, the chamber that you're in now. Several months ago, really, and it's passed out of Senate committee, but it's kind of held up, hasn't made its way to the floor. And just today, we're recording on Thursday, July 21st, just today the Mackinac Bridge Authority adopted a resolution, again, endorsing it and urging the Senate to move on it. So, can you talk, first, about why you felt like it was important to do these key facilities structures and designate the Mackinac and some other bridges and tunnels as part of that?
Damoose: Sure, I absolutely can. Well, let me start by saying this came out of a couple of incidents that happened last summer. One was a guy was seen crawling underneath the bridge with a black backpack on him. It set off all the security protocols, and you have to take those things seriously; you don't have any idea whether that is a real threat, or whether it's just a thrill seeker. You can't do that. And then a couple weeks later, we had a bomb scare on the bridge. In the investigation of that, what came out was that the Mackinac Bridge, if you can imagine, was not listed in our state's official list of key infrastructure. And I cannot imagine anything more critical to our state than the Mackinac Bridge because if something happened to it, we'd literally be broken in two as a state for years. And so, we did this bill to make it a felony to try to pass on the bridge. We did it the right way, where I introduced a bill initially that was just beautiful, was three words, adding “the Mackinac Bridge” to the current statute. Which I love because of its simplicity. But as we got into it, we recognized that there were other key facilities that needed to be listed, too. Certainly, the International Bridge up in our neck of the woods, and the Ambassador Bridge. Those should certainly be part of that. Then we also realized that, we did it right, it was not as simple as just sort of adding it to the list. There were some concerns with the local tribes and some rituals they do that this could have affected. So we worked with the tribes. We worked deeply with you guys at MDOT. And everybody came along and made this just really good common-sense piece of legislation. And it's passed out of the House, finally got taken up in the Senate, and now it's just sort of sitting there. We need this to pass now.
Cranson: Well, first, let me run down for anybody that's not paying attention to this issue, the key facilities that would be included are any movable bridges in the state: the Zilwaukee Bridge, the Rouge River Bridge, the MacArthur Bridge—all the international crossings, which include the Ambassador Bridge, the Blue Water Bridge, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which is being built, the International Bridge in the Sioux, and then of course the Mackinac Bridge. So, that's a lot. And given the thrill seekers and what we found out about people, whether they're taking photos, like you said, or just trying to see what they can get away with, anything to deter that kind of behavior is helpful. And people don't understand, I think a lot of times, that when somebody does that, somebody climbs up on the tower of the bridge or goes underneath or something, it isn't just that they're presenting a danger to themselves. If somebody has to rescue them, if they fall, if they drop equipment, there's lots of ways this can be a danger.
Damoose: Absolutely. You just don't mess with these bridges. I mean, this is too important to our whole society here, and there's just too many threats out there that we got to take this stuff seriously. And so I wasn't opposed to adding in the other bridges. Again, I loved doing this just because I love the Mackinac Bridge. Even now, every time my family and I go across the bridge, I tune into the little radio program that talks about the history of the bridge, and how long it is, and all these things just because I love the bridge. But once everybody said, no John, we've got a problem with all these different key bridges around the state; let's fix it all in one fell swoop. Well, we're excited about that. But you're absolutely right, I mean, with all the security threats out there, you gotta take everyone seriously. So not only can bad things, really bad things happen, but even the cost of and time invested in securing that bridge once there has been a threat. I mean, that bomb scare, the bridge was closed for like five hours on a busy summer weekend. You can't do that. Just think of the man hours wasted just because of that.
Cranson: Yeah, that was really disturbing. And yeah, I recall that day because it was a weekend, and I was getting texts from media all over the place
Damoose: Oh, I’m sure you were.
Cranson: Yeah. So as it is now, it's a misdemeanor to trespass on these kinds of structures, which means, really, a slap on the wrist, up to 30 days in jail, $250 fine. This would give you a potential penalty of up to four years in prison, a fine of up to twenty-five hundred dollars. So taking it to the felony level definitely makes a difference.
Damoose: It does, and we've heard that from prosecutors, the two up here, that they needed stronger laws and stronger incentives against doing this type of thing so that they could do their job better. So I was more than happy to make that happen. Some people were saying, “well, why should it be a felony just trespassing on a bridge?” There is a lot of people at risk when this happens, and if something happens that bridge or something happens to people crossing that bridge, it's not a joke. This is a serious crime. And we saw that even this winter. The threats aren't just from people. I mean, the bridge had to close down because of falling ice numerous times this winter, and you don't play around on these structures. So I was really glad to make it a felony.
Cranson: Well, so why do you think this is held up in the Senate? Why can't this just move, given the popularity of it in the House?
Damoose: I have no idea because who's against protecting the Mackinac Bridge? I don't know if they have other priorities there. I know there were some last-minute sort of shenanigans when it was coming out of a committee trying to tie it to another piece of legislation that had absolutely nothing to do with protecting the bridge. And so, I don't know, or if it's just their schedule, but I’m glad that the bridge issued this resolution today calling upon the Senate. And I joined with them in that, that we need to take this up. This should be a total no-brainer. It's not partisan, it's not right or left, it doesn't really cost anything, it's doing something wise and smart for our culture. This is the type of thing we should be doing in the legislature.
Cranson: Well, the Mackinac Bridge Authority touched on the other bill that really doesn't have anything to do with this, but there seem to be people that want to connect it. And it deals with a carve out for an agricultural business that wants to carry implements of husbandry or wants to actually drive them across the bridge without going through the permit process and putting it on a flatbed trailer, which is the process everywhere. So, I’m going to talk later with Shorty Gleason, the chairman of the Mackinac Bridge Authority about the two bills, and why they are supporting one very strongly, very aggressively, and why they see a lot of flaws in the other one. And we'll also talk about why he thought that this resolution was so important to put their stamp of approval on House Bill 5315. What else would you want people to know about your bill, and why you're excited and waiting patiently but still excited about getting it over the finish line?
Damoose: Well, personally it means something to me because my grandfather, who was the city manager in Traverse City, was at the dedication of that bridge. And to think that some 60 years later, 70 years later, his grandson could have a role in helping to protect that bridge, I just think that's kind of neat. It means something to me here. You're bringing up the other the other issue of the agricultural use—this has absolutely nothing to do with this bill. If they want to go after something, first, I don't even know much about what they're trying to propose there. But it has nothing to do with it. Let's just pass this, which is common sense that everybody agrees on, and then if they want to do something else for another issue, let them go do something else for another issue. Let's just get this one done.
Cranson: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It's interesting, too, about your grandfather. Bill Milliken Jr, who's a member of the American House Bridge Authority, his grandfather was actually one of the chief advocates back in the 30s for the bridge. So 20 years before it got built.
Damoose: No, I know. And Bill Milliken Jr grew up with my dad, so they knew each other. And we were together on the bridge walk last year. It’s sort of fun reconnecting with all these people who've been around for so long there. And I know his whole family has been a big part of this.
Cranson: Yeah. Are you going to do the bridge walk this year?
Damoose: [laughing] Oh, you bet I am. I wouldn't miss that, we had so much fun. And it was funny because we started off with the governor and Wayne Schmidt, and all of us started walking. The governor was going so fast, though, that after about a hundred yards, they sort of said, you know what, we're done. We're gonna walk, so we're gonna enjoy it.
Cranson: Oh, yeah. I remember your young son was there, but he seemed like he was having a lot of fun.
Damoose: He was having a blast. He ran out—in fact, he's standing right here with me. He remembers that, too, he ran out right in front of the governor. We were like, “get back here, Henry, get back here!”
Damoose: It’s such a great tradition. I mean, you really see the majesty of that bridge when you're walking across it. And you see the sun rise over there; it's just spectacular. Anybody who hasn't done that needs to do it.
Cranson: I agree, I’m always trying to tell people they should do it. It's a great Michigan tradition.
Damoose: It is. It's a great Michigan tradition.
Cranson: Well thanks representative, I appreciate it. Good luck pushing for this bill, and hopefully you'll get to be part of a signing soon.
Damoose: Oh, absolutely. Let me know how I can help you guys out because again, I think the work you do is tremendous, and it's often a thankless job what you do around the state here. But keep me keep me posted on how I can help.
Cranson: Yeah, okay. Thank you. Let's listen to this brief message, and then I’ll be back with Shorty Gleason, chairman of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.
Narrator: If you need to get out and stretch your legs, don't forget about the annual Mackinac Bridge walk. Make your plans to attend the walk on labor day and take in some of the best views in the state of Michigan on the mighty Mac. For more information, go to mackinacbridge.org/walk
Cranson: So, Shorty Gleason is perhaps one of the longest serving Mackinac Bridge Authority members starting—gosh, Shorty, when did you first get appointed to the authority?
Patrick “Shorty” Gleason: Well, I believe it was the beginning of 2005 was when I had the pleasure and the honor to serve on the Mackinac Bridge Authority.
Cranson: So you've been on for 17 years, these last few years as chairman. For many, many years, everything was pretty routine. You talked about revenues and whether we needed toll increases or not and when it was time to put a new deck on and pretty much routine things that stayed out of the spotlight. These last few years, there's been one thing after another, with having to change the bridge walk, a tradition that dates back to the bridges opening in 1957, and other issues of security. Just all kinds of things that have been going on, and you've been a busy chairman. Before we get into this bill and why you guys felt strongly enough to pass a resolution supporting legislation, which is something the Mackinac Bridge Authority has rarely done, talk about your history with the bridge, and your dad as an iron worker.
Gleason: Well, thank you. Dad worked up there from 1954 when the bridge, the structural steel portion of the bridge, started, right up to just about when it opened on November 1st, 1957, so. And what's really unique, dad had such a love for the bridge, like any iron worker does, that he actually came out of retirement in 1999 to return to work again for American Bridge to do the traveler underneath the Mackinac Bridge. So, he had a great summer doing that, enjoyed every minute of it.
Gleason: That bridge itself is really an engineering marvel, and what an accomplishment by the iron workers to deliver that bridge on time and on budget in some really adverse conditions out there on the straits of Mackinac.
Cranson: Yeah, it's a classic example of one of the things that people said couldn't be done, right?
Gleason: Yeah, and if you talk to the ironworkers that built the bridge, when a statement like that comes up they say, “well, you should never tell an iron worker that we can't build something”.
Cranson: Well the iconic nature, I mean, we felt strongly enough to put it on our license plates. People come from all over the place just to see it, not to mention its importance linking our two peninsulas. And I’ve seen the photos, I’m sure you have, too, of deer hunters backed up for miles, waiting to get on a ferry. I guess the deer in the UP were just that good.
Gleason: That’s why we got our family deer camp in the UP, just for that reason.
Cranson: Yeah, and it probably dates back to when your relatives took ferries over, right?
Gleason: Yeah, dad and my uncles waited in those lines for quite some time. In fact, in many cases, that was the highlight of their trip to get out of their vehicles and speak and develop relationships with other hunters waiting to cross as well.
Cranson: I know I have photos in the 50s of my maternal grandparents from Battle Creek who drove up there and took photos of the bridge being built. They were just that curious and that interested in it. And you can multiply that across the state. It really is still a marvel. So, talk about House Bill 5315, why you felt strongly enough to adopt a resolution, because this thing has been languishing in the senate after passing in the house 99 to 6 in early 2022. In all your years lobbying for building trades and arguing for people who actually build things and make our state a better place, have you ever seen something like this, where a bill passed overwhelmingly, and then just sat in one chamber?
Gleason: No, it's pretty remarkable that—Jeff, if I may, I want to start out on behalf of Mackinac Bridge Authority and say thank you to Representative Damoose on this bill. And it was because of his due diligence, when they were in the draft stages of 5315, it was a really important discovery. It wasn't just the Mackinac Bridge that was left unsecured with trespassers only being a misdemeanor, which is absolutely nothing, but it was discovered throughout the state of Michigan, there were several key bridges. In fact, all the key bridges here in the state weren't protected with a strong felony trespassing charge, which obviously affects the security of these bridges. And just, start out with the Mackinac Bridge, that was one, the Zilwaukee Bridge, the Rouge River Bridge, the MacArthur Bridge. Then you have the international bridges like the Sioux, the Blue Water, the Ambassador, the Gordie Howe bridges. And also, this legislation was so well drafted by Representative Damoose, it even covers movable bridges. For example, the basket bridges we have here in the state of Michigan, as well as that critical Houghton Hancock lift bridge up in the Copper Harbor region. So, the Representative Damoose really did a good job. And when you mention, in today's times, or any time when you have a strong bill like this that receives such good bipartisan support to leave the Michigan House of Representatives 99 to 6, I think that says everything of how good this bill is. And we have a lot of faith and hope that the Senate will act on this as soon as they return from their recess. It's a very critical bill, and it includes so many very critical key facilities bridges throughout the state of Michigan. So, hats off to senator or, excuse me, Representative Damoose for his leadership and seeing that this bill got through the House into the Senate the way it did.
Cranson: Yeah, and I’m glad you listed those other structures that are affected, some perhaps not as well-known as the Mackinac Bridge—everybody knows it. But you know, people have a great deal of pride in the International Bridge and the Blue Water Bridge, both unique in construction and in design. Same you could say for the Zilwaukee Bridge and the Gordie Howe International Bridge you mentioned going up, which will be a cable state bridge, which is a beautiful design. And whether or not we can really draw a line of what kind of deterrent knowing it is, being able to post something that says trespassing is a felony, it means that the people that we're talking about who climbed the towers or otherwise accessed these structures in the past illegally, they might be in jail right now if these had been felony charges. I think that it deserves a spotlight, and hopefully it'll get that. You guys, also, you and your fellow authority members passed a motion on some other legislation; talk about that a little bit and why you felt strongly enough to pursue that.
Gleason: Well, the number one importance of the Mackinac Bridge Authority is to ensure safe passage across the Mackinac Bridge for all motorists. And also, keeping in mind that these motorists quite often are close to the maintenance crew that we have up there in the Mackinac Bridge. And like any request that ever comes before the MBA, we always do our due diligence. We always act in good faith in making these decisions on how it's going to affect the travel across the Mackinac Bridge. Working with the Bridge Director here, Kim Nowack, and the staff, that their recommendation was that, after we looked at everything and tried to modify these bills to where it would work on the Mackinac Bridge, the special committee, which it consisted of Bill Milliken and Tricia Kinley and myself, we determined that there was no way that these bills could be modified to where we could ensure that it was safe passage for motorists. The structural integrity would not affect the bridge in any way, and it just wasn't feasible. That's why we took the action we did yesterday because we have really been in opposition to these bills since they were first introduced in the state house, which was approximately two years ago.
Cranson: To be clear, what the bridge administration and what the authority is saying is that we have a procedure. We have this for all the state routes, all the federal aid highways, which was a point that former MDOT director and member of the MBA, Kirk Steudle, made yesterday. This is I-75 we're talking about, and there are rules and regulations, and asking for the proper permit process and to carry it on a flatbed trailer is not saying no, it's just saying that we have to regulate this for reasons of safety and protection of the bridge and for other travelers.
Gleason: Exactly right, and that's been implemented from day one on the bridge. It's always worked very well, and it doesn't jeopardize any travel on that bridge, it doesn't impede traffic on the bridge, and it's regulated with the Michigan State Police for extra wide loads or oversized loads through the permitting process. It's worked very well from the very first day on the Mackinac Bridge.
Cranson: The two have nothing to do with one another. One bill deals with reclassifying these for a level of protection that you get with key facilities status, and that doesn't really have anything to do with the other. Yet somehow, they seem to have been linked. And as Representative Damoose talked about this earlier on the podcast that that seems to be part of the hold up, and that's unfortunate.
Gleason: Well yeah, there's absolutely no link to these bills whatsoever. They're two stand-alone bills, and one bill doesn't involve the other bill but hopefully the Senate keys in real quick on House Bill 5315, which is the key facility bill for security of these critical bridges throughout the state of Michigan.
Cranson: Yeah there aren't a lot of session days left this year, but yeah, let's hope that it gets some priority soon. Is there anything else you want to say, Shorty, about House Bill 5315?
Gleason: Yeah, our mission is to uphold the safe travel across that Mackinac Bridge for all motorists, and the structural integrity of that bridge to ensure it's always there. And if there's one good thing I can say about the bill itself right now is that we, the Mackinac Bridge Authority, has done everything in our power to make sure that the Mackinac Bridge is protected. And we've done this with a good work relationship that we've had with Representative Damoose. So I’d be absolutely shocked if the Senate didn't pass these bills because it's a lot more than just the Mackinac Bridge, it's key facilities throughout the state of Michigan that have to be protected. And we can't allow people just to start climbing around for many, many reasons but security more than anything.
Cranson: Yeah. Well said, Shorty. Well, thank you for taking time to help explain this and for your service on the Mackinac Bridge Authority. It's like I said earlier, it's been a really busy time. You take these last three or four years out of the entire 67-year history of the bridge, and I don't think there was ever anything like it. So, I appreciate your quiet and thoughtful leadership.
Gleason: Well, thank you, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It's been a wonderful experience.
Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to Apple podcast and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.