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Michigan Transportation and Land Use Policy Initiative: Introduction and Strategy for Project Partners

Introduction and strategy for project partners

June 1, 1999 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Revised June 1, 1999

The Michigan Land Use Institute has established a project to build popular support for an alternative transportation and land use program for Michigan.

The project is designed to accomplish these primary objectives:

  1. Reform transportation decision-making at the state level, including halting the wasteful construction of more than $2 billion in proposed new highways, most of them planned for the northern Lower Peninsula of the state.
  2. Work with local governments, citizen groups, and metropolitan planning organizations to build a popular movement aimed at designing and installing a more efficient alternative transportation and land use program to move people and goods.
  3. Establish alliances with neighborhood organizations in Detroit and other southern Michigan cities to reduce congestion and improve access to public transit.
  4. Fundamentally change how the Michigan Department of Transportation plans for, justifies, and executes transportation projects.
  5. Work with local government, public interest organizations, and business leaders to strengthen land use laws at the local and state levels in order to slow sprawl in Michigan, and encourage more compact, less damaging settlement patterns.

The overarching idea of this project is to change how people and policy makers think about transportation and land use. Our intent is to minimize congestion by curbing sprawl, and giving people more choices for getting around. In effect, we are proposing an alternative approach that encourages new patterns of development with more cost-effective and less ecologically damaging transportation investments. The Michigan Land Use Institute is convinced that the ultimate solution to traffic congestion throughout the state is to lower demand, not increase capacity.

The Michigan Transportation and Land Use Policy Initiative is prompted by increasing public resistance to the idea, promoted by state traffic engineers and many local chambers of commerce, that new highways will solve congestion. Moreover, it is inspired by the success of alternative transportation and land use programs conceived for Portland, by 1000 Friends of Oregon, and for Chicago and its suburbs by the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

This is a statewide project. In northern and west Michigan, which are the targets of the bulk of the new road-building dollars, we will inform and organize a much larger public constituency to support alternatives to expensive, damaging, and unnecessary new highways that are proposed in Alpena, Cadillac, Grand Rapids, Petoskey, and Traverse City.

In southern and west Michigan, we will work with urban civic groups and neighborhood groups in Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Grand Rapids to promote increased public investment in transit systems, high speed rail, and in repairing existing highways.

The traffic models, research, communications approaches, and constituency building tools developed in this project will have applicability throughout the state. They also will serve to build an influential alliance of organizations intent on achieving reform in transportation planning and design.
Among the alternatives that the Institute intends to put before public officials and citizens during the course of this project are:

  • Repairing existing roads and bridges.
  • Computerizing local traffic light systems to speed the flow of traffic.
  • Developing new design standards for roads to preserve scenic character.
  • Altering the existing models used by the Department of Transportation to justify new roads.
  • Improving commuter rail and Amtrak, and introducing high speed rail service in Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and Detroit.
  • Reforming the decision-making process within metropolitan planning organizations and within the state DOT to give priority to transportation projects that reduce traffic demand.
  • Traffic calming along neighborhood roads to slow speeds and gently steer drivers to major roads.
  • Installing express bus service to connect town centers.
  • Building new light rail lines on old freight corridors.
  • Constructing bicycle and pedestrian pathways.
  • Establishing new land use measures to encourage in-fill development, curb sprawl, and enhance walkable communities.

The Michigan Transportation and Land Use Policy Initiative is long-term and is designed to be carried out in multiple phases:

  • During phase one the Institute and its partners will develop an effective message and communications strategy to help citizens better understand how transportation systems are planned and financed, and to promote reasoned alternatives that serve urban and rural constituencies. We also will organize a statewide alternative transportation coalition, made up of public interest organizations, citizens groups, and local governments from throughout Michigan.
  • In phase two, the Institute and its partners will prepare a common sense study on congestion in two northern Michigan communities, and a second, more technical critique of the traditional traffic models deployed by state engineers. In southern Michigan, we will work with coalition partners to develop an action plan to build a larger public constituency aimed at gaining greater investment in public transit and to promote increased spending for road repairs.
  • In phase three, the Institute will prepare a vision document that describes a cohesive alternative land use and transportation plan for northwest Michigan. We will work with coalition partners to design a public education program — using traditional and “new” media — to build a constituency to support alternative transportation plans in southern and west Michigan. Also in phase three, we will publish a research report and action plan for reforming transportation planning in Michigan that will form the basis of new public policy to be proposed by state lawmakers.

Prompted by census projections that predict a 40 percent increase in northern Michigan’s population by 2020, state and county road engineers have proposed more than $2 billion in new highways. It is the most aggressive and costly highway building plan in Michigan since the 1960s. Highway officials contend that unless the network of new beltways, bypasses, and freeways is built, traffic congestion will worsen and the region’s economy will suffer.

Opposing the road builders are local government officials, public interest organizations, and citizens who assert that the transportation engineers have proposed a 1950s solution to a 21st century problem. New highways, once viewed as a tangible symbol of community progress, and a harbinger of economic development, are now seen as something altogether different. Communities are coming to recognize that new highways intensify traffic problems, waste a fortune in taxpayer dollars, and exact a heavy toll on neighborhoods and the environment.
Meanwhile the population centers of southern Michigan face a different, but related set of transportation problems. Federal and state transportation funding formulas favor new road construction over repairs. Thus new highways are being built or planned in northern Michigan while existing highways deteriorate in southern Michigan, where road repair funds are most needed.

The problem is compounded by Michigan’s distinctive system of county road commissions. These are elected or appointed bodies that typically conduct most of their business beyond the public’s scrutiny. County road commissions are charged with maintaining, repairing, and building new roads outside city limits. The bulk of their funds come from the authority to tax all property owners, including those living in cities. They also earn significant income by acting as contractors to the state to maintain and upgrade state trunk lines.
County road commissions, as a result, have emerged as one of the principal promoters of sprawl in Michigan. Using their taxing authority, state trunk line maintenance fees, and discretionary federal highway funds, road commissions are busy widening existing roads and building new state trunk lines in suburban and rural regions. These roads quickly become magnets for subdivisions, shopping plazas and other haphazard development.
For years, this collision of policy and demographics has been a mainstay of conversation among planners, local governments, and the state highway department in Michigan. Suddenly it has taken on new urgency that has attracted much broader public attention.

In southern Michigan, existing roads are crumbling. Michigan’s roads have been rated among the worst in the nation and the most damaging to vehicles driven on them. Transit systems, meanwhile, are underfunded and not keeping pace with the changing commuter patterns, particularly in the Detroit metropolitan area.
Moreover, the federal government is pumping $825 million in federal transportation funds into Michigan in 1999, $310 million more than in 1998. Under existing transportation funding formulas, the bulk of the funds unfortunately may go into building new roads in rural areas instead of repairing highways and modernizing transit systems in urban centers. The increased funding has sparked a vigorous debate concerning how best to invigorate transportation statewide.

The debate over transportation spending in Michigan presents the Michigan Land Use Institute and other organizations with a promising opportunity to reform policy. We intend to do so by building a statewide coalition that links advocates for new land use and alternative transportation policy in northern Michigan with transit agencies, civic organizations, and urban leaders in southern west Michigan.

Although a young organization, the Michigan Land Use Institute has a strong record of deploying probing research, excellent communications skills, and coalition building to gain significant public policy reforms. The Institute already is working with local leaders and citizens in seven counties in northern Michigan to halt proposed new highways. The Institute helped to form and is now staffing the Coalition for Sensible Growth, a Traverse-City based citizens group seeking to halt a planned $300 million bypass. The Institute also is working with two townships in Emmet County, where a $70 million bypass is planned around Petoskey. And we have established relationships with the community group People for U.S.-23 Freeway Alternatives, in Alpena, and the Western Michigan Environmental Action Council in Grand Rapids, where other expensive roads are planned.
Anticipating that the Institute will expand its transportation project to southern Michigan, we have begun talking to public interest organizations in the Detroit Metropolitan area. We also will expand these outreach activities to Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and other cities under the Joyce grant approved in 1998.

The ultimate test for alternative transportation ideas is the extent to which they are adopted as public policy. The Institute has designed a project that incorporates these tasks:

  1. MESSAGE DEVELOPMENT. A number of focus groups and state surveys have been conducted recently in Michigan and in other states that probe public attitudes and knowledge of transportation and land use issues. The Institute and the Environmental Law & Policy Center, in Chicago, will review this work and, along with our own experiences in working at the grassroots level, develop public messages about the need to reform transportation and land use policy. Effective messages will help us build a public constituency for change.
  2. ESTABLISHING A TECHNICAL DATA BASE. Several technical studies are necessary to advance this project during its first year. The first, to be conducted by the Michigan Land Use Institute, is based on a simple, common sense appraisal of traffic congestion in two northern Michigan communities. In essence, we will count cars.
    Institute staff members, in cooperation with local community organizations, will measure traffic periodically during morning and evening rush hours, and during off-peak hours, through all seasons. The intent is to discover whether traffic congestion exists and, if so, when and where it is worst.
    The second study, to be prepared with the assistance of an independent engineering firm, will critique the traditional traffic count models deployed by the state Department of Transportation to justify its road-building binge. The Institute is convinced that the traditional traffic models yield a skewed assessment that results in expensive and damaging public policy.
    Michigan’s traffic models fail to account for the effect of sprawling development on the landscape. The Institute’s studies will help communities and traffic planners address these complex and often ignored issues.
    The public benefit from such studies is a much better understanding of the scoring systems that the state DOT deploys to justify new construction, and to deny more appropriate projects such as road repairs, transit modernization, and strengthened land use controls. The studies will serve to educate citizens about the narrow criteria transportation agencies use to build new roads, and will show graphically how such criteria are really a ready-made formula for encouraging sprawl.
    The results of each study will be widely disseminated by the Institute, which has an excellent record of being able to reach thousands of residents through its quarterly magazine, special reports, regular commentary on radio and in newspapers, and by working with journalists and broadcasters.
  3. PREPARING A REGIONAL TRANSPORTATION PLAN. With the assistance of the Environmental Law & Policy Center and private consultants, the Institute will prepare a vision document that describes a cohesive alternative land use and transportation plan for northern Michigan. The report will propose specific measures that local governments and citizens can take to reduce congestion, curb sprawl, protect the environment, and enhance local economies. The vision document will be the Institute’s core proposal and serve as the starting point for a more focused discussion about alternatives in the region and statewide.
  4. BUILDING A LARGER CONSTITUENCY FOR REFORM. The Institute will publish fact sheets, brochures, news articles, and other materials that succinctly describe and summarize the need for alternative transportation planning, and to strengthen land use laws in Michigan. The Institute also will propose an action plan for how to achieve alternative transportation plans in northern, southern, and west Michigan. The Institute will organize public meetings across the region and state, and use traditional and “new media” to further disseminate the ideas. Institute staff will use the public education materials it has developed, along with face to face meetings, to recruit local governments, business groups, conservation organizations, and other allies.
    Building an educated citizenry will permanently change the way in which Michigan communities consider transportation solutions. This constituency, well-versed in transportation and land use issues, has the potential to reform state transportation planning in the future.
  5. PROMOTING NEW PUBLIC POLICY. The Institute has established a strong record of preparing comprehensive public education materials that prompt state and federal lawmakers to introduce reform legislation. The two most prominent examples include:
    · Six energy reform measures were signed into law by Gov. John Engler in July, 1998, including measures to protect the rights of mineral owners and safeguard the state’s most scenic areas from oil and gas development. The House also is considering legislation to establish hydrocarbon development planning to protect sensitive watersheds. Additional work is occurring in the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources to establish new administrative rules for leasing public lands, for overseeing royalty payments, and for safeguarding the Great Lakes coastline. U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak introduced federal legislation to protect the Great Lakes coast that also is based in part on the Institute’s research.

The Institute’s project to protect public health from hydrogen sulfide (H2S) led to a new law, signed by Gov. Engler in July, 1998, that directs the Department of Environmental Quality to consider public health risks when approving or shutting down oil and gas wells, and related production facilities. In addition, the DEQ and the Department of Community Health are working with the Institute and citizens to establish a new public health protection program for H2S, including instituting a public health exposure limit that would bar oil and gas facilities that contain the toxic compound in populated areas.

With transportation, new public policy is needed both to amend the state law overseeing road commissions, and the enabling statute that authorizes the funding formulas and design criteria utilized by the state DOT. The amendments are needed to encourage the bulk of highway construction funds to be spent in metropolitan centers instead of undeveloped rural regions. The prime objective is to give priority to transportation projects that reduce traffic demand. Therefore, new public policy also is needed to direct more public funding into transit projects, which may be accomplished through changes in laws or administrative rules.

Lastly, this project will work with and support ongoing efforts in Michigan — nearly all of them occurring with the help of the Institute — to establish a statewide planning program that encourages investing public economic development funds in cities, and conserving farmland, forests, and natural areas.

The Institute anticipates that within two years of the project’s start, in these measurable results will be achieved:

  1. A statewide alternative transportation coalition will be active in at least 20 counties in northern, southern, and west Michigan, and in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. The coalition will be made up primarily of local governments and public interest organizations that share common goals of reforming transportation decision-making in order to curb sprawl, rebuild cities, conserve farmland, reduce energy demand and pollution, and protect natural resources. The coalition will publish a strategic action plan outlining the major steps that need to be taken to reform transportation planning in Michigan.
  2. The public’s knowledge of how transportation affects land use, sprawl, and disinvestment in cities will be sharply elevated by preparing articles and special reports, recruiting news media attention, organizing public meetings and testifying in public forums. The public’s knowledge of options for solving the problem also will be sharply elevated. Transportation and land use will be among the major public policy discussions in Michigan.
  3. Members of the alternative transportation coalition, the Institute, and ELPC will have established strong working relationships with the staff and leadership of the state Department of Transportation, the staff of the transit agencies in Grand Rapids and Detroit, lawmakers in the state House and Senate, and with members of the Michigan Congressional delegation.
  4. An alternative land use and transportation plan for Northwest Michigan will be completed. The plan will stress options for reducing traffic demand instead of increasing road capacity. The plan also will set out ideas for improving land use plans and zoning in order to encourage more walkable and livable communities.
  5. Legislation to reform transportation planning, including changing funding formulas in order to encourage projects that reduce demand, will have been introduced in the Michigan legislature.
  6. Legislation to enact a statewide land use planning program will have been introduced. The intent of the legislation is to establish statewide planning goals that slow sprawl and direct the bulk of government economic development investments to cities and developed region. The legislation also will provide local governments with the financial and technical support to achieve the planning goals.
  7. Proposals to build $2 billion in new highways in northern and west Michigan will be on their way to defeat.
  8. A traffic calming project will have been completed in Traverse City.

The Michigan Land Use Institute is a nonprofit economic and environmental policy research organization based in Benzonia. Established in 1995, the Institute has an 11-member staff, an energetic volunteer corps, and a growing membership of more than 1,500 families, local governments, public interest organizations, and businesses.
The Institute focuses its research, policy, and communications work on these public interest issues: agriculture, energy development, land use management, resource protection, transportation, and environmental and economic policy. In 1997, the Detroit News called the Institute the most effective land use policy reform advocate in Michigan.
The Institute’s work is statewide. Staff members also are taking active roles in setting strategy and consulting on communications for national land use policy reform campaigns administered by the National Growth Management Leadership Project, the American Farmland Trust, and the National Trust For Historic Preservation.

The evidence is convincing: far from being a solution to traffic and economic woes, road building is one of the principal causes. The result of America’s over reliance on highway construction has been to fling homes, businesses, schools, and communities ever farther into the countryside. The resulting costs to individuals and society are staggering:

  • More Americans are killed in automobile accidents than by guns and drugs combined.
  • Cities have spread out, generally at a rate three- to six-times faster than population growth, fostering disinvestment and social degradation.
  • Families have been compelled to buy fleets of cars and light trucks and spend, on average, $5,000 per vehicle each year to keep them insured and running.
  • The progress the nation has made to clear the water and air is now at risk of being reversed. Polluted runoff from roads and pavement now accounts for half of all water contamination in the United States. Though engines are more efficient, there are so many more of them that gasoline consumption has increased nearly 4 billion gallons annually since 1970. Releases to the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, have increased to 1.6 million tons annually, 40 percent more than in 1971.
  • New highway construction has cost American taxpayers nearly $90 billion annually over the last decade, and still traffic congestion is worse than ever.

Clearly, a new approach is warranted. In Michigan, the increasingly imbalanced relationship between the car and the community is a core issue. It is nearing the top of the list of political priorities in northern Michigan, and is of increasing concern in southern and west Michigan. In collaboration with local leaders and public interest organizations, the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Environmental Law & Policy Center are pursuing a long-term communications, public education, and advocacy project to reform transportation decision-making and land use policy in Michigan.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org