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New Direction Curbs Road-Building Binge, Conserves Land and Tax Money

August 1, 2000 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Communities once welcomed new highways with fanfare as a symbol of progress and prosperity. A ribbon-cutting ceremony christened the new road. Politicians posed for photographs to memorialize the event. Neighbors watched as the first vehicles rolled down the roadway, beckoning cars, trucks, and commerce to follow their lead.
In Michigan, those were the heady days of the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Highways linked urban and rural areas like never before, speeding the exchange of goods, spawning suburbia, and priming the tourist economy. Pavement couldn’t spread out fast enough.
Today, new roads aren’t novel anymore. Michigan boasts 9,600 miles of state highways linked to 109,000 miles of local roads. Traffic clogs the once-open expanse, with drivers logging 100 billion miles a year on Michigan’s asphalt. Road-induced sprawl seeps into the most remote areas. In short, pavement is everywhere, and attitudes toward highways have taken a U-turn.

Road Rebellion in the Car Capital
Like never before in Michigan, citizens are uniting to oppose new highways and support improvements to existing ones that conserve the land and taxpayer dollars. In town after town, Gov. John Engler and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) have proposed multi-million- and billion-dollar highways and bypasses, and residents have rejected the offer. No ribbon cutting, no slow-motion parade, just a “no thank you.” It’s a road rebellion in the car capital. And it’s gaining momentum from recent successes, namely the costliest canceled projects in Michigan’s storied history of highway building:
US-23 in northeast Michigan — In Alpena, a persistent band of residents last March helped topple the state’s $1.5 billion plan to build 100 miles of four-lane freeway parallel to the existing two-lane US-23.
Gov. Engler personally promised the project as an economic lift to northeast Michigan after Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda closed in 1993. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, withdrew its support after finding that the first of the proposal’s three segments would have caused the “largest single wetlands loss within Michigan.”
Meanwhile, the small but tireless group, People for US-23 Freeway Alternatives, continued to battle the freeway plan by pointing to the cost to taxpayers and the environment. “There are other ways of doing things than tearing through the countryside and remaking communities all over again,” said Paul Bruce, group’s founder. “Right from the start, our whole focus was to fix the roads we have and not build a new, billion-dollar freeway.”
The Institute also shined a spotlight on the wasteful proposal, partnering with Taxpayers for Common Sense and Friends of the Earth to publish two influential reports, Green Scissors Michigan and Road to Ruin.
The relentless citizen pressure helped prompt the U.S. government to take a closer look, said James Kirschensteiner, programs and operations engineer at the Federal Highway Administration office in Lansing. Last March, the agency finally agreed with the point Mr. Bruce’s group had made for years, and directed MDOT to upgrade US-23 — with passing and turn lanes — or study converting the existing highway into a four-lane boulevard.
MDOT immediately announced plans to improve US-23 and other area highways. The agency also hinted it might polish and re-submit the US-23 freeway plan in coming years, but would not comment for this article. However Mr. Kirschensteiner of the FHWA doubts that a re-submittal will happen anytime soon.
“US-23 is not a high priority for MDOT anymore,” Mr. Kirschensteiner said. “There’s not a need for it. The reason was economic development. When it’s economic development, it’s tough to justify the environmental and financial cost.”
US-131 in northwest Michigan — Last January MDOT withdrew its $500 million proposal to boost northwest Michigan’s economy by constructing a new, four-lane US-131 parallel to the two-lane highway. The state’s own study revealed that development would shift to the highway corridor but no net economic growth would result, just as some area residents had contended.
“The US-131 freeway extension will represent a net consumption of state monies,” MDOT’s consultant Wilbur Smith Associates reported dryly in an August 1998 economic analysis. “The state’s economy will be worse off by between $58 million and $60 million.”
It was damning news for a project promoted solely to boost economic development. After all, as the report made clear, the small traffic counts and minimal congestion couldn’t justify the half billion-dollar investment along the relatively calm corridor, which begins about 12 miles north of Cadillac. Knowing that the federal government would never fund an 80% share of the project, the state broke the cancellation news to the public in early 2000.
In northwest Michigan, the state’s announcement was met with a mix of relief from homeowners in the proposed highway’s path, and Midwestern practicality from others who saw past the sparkle and excitement of a promised new road. News accounts reported that people simply wanted existing roads upgraded to handle traffic more efficiently and acceptably.

Fueling Hope

The recent “roadkill,” as activists call these defeated projects, has fueled optimism statewide that better ideas might prevail in other locales. In fact, citizens are busy crafting those ideas, rather than just saying “no” to ill-conceived highway proposals. In Grand Haven, Petoskey, Traverse City, and southeast Michigan, residents continue to develop transit and local road alternatives to one-size-fits-all highway bypass and interstate projects.
“We’ve certainly seen that grassroots groups in Michigan can be successful if they are organized, vocal, and persistent in their fight against unneeded new highways,” said Rob Oreskovich. He leads a group called Citizens Against Urban Sprawl Expressways (CAUSE), which is battling a state proposal to build a $1 billion interstate highway, I-73, between Jackson and Toledo parallel to US-223. At a CAUSE meeting last May, more than 700 people turned out in small-town Temperance to plan their strategy.
“Our solution is to repair and improve existing roads rather than pave over open lands,” Mr. Oreskovich said. “The state shouldn’t be expanding a highway system that it already struggles to maintain and that needs modernizing.”

When the state promises that a new highway will solve congestion, residents increasingly foresee more traffic, fouled air, dirty water, ceaseless noise, and generic development where farms, forests, and neighborhoods once stood.
Underlying the road rebellion is a dogged determination to enhance the quality of life in Michigan’s urban and rural areas. In greater numbers than ever before, citizens see their communities and culture threatened by proposals for more cars and road construction.
Now when residents hear of a highway proposed to spur growth, they rightly declare that open space also boosts the economy, as hikers and bikers, hunters and anglers, and skiers and snowmobilers spend freely to enjoy themselves. When the state promises that a new highway will solve congestion, residents increasingly foresee more traffic, fouled air, dirty water, ceaseless noise, and generic development where farms, forests, and neighborhoods once stood.

A Chance for Reform
The road rebellion has arisen at an opportune time. Lawmakers this year are retooling Public Act 51, the state’s primary law funding new highways, road repair, and public transit (See related story on next page.) The Engler Administration and MDOT are pushing for more money for state highways and less for local roads, a survival-of-the-fittest funding program for local bus systems, and an exemption for MDOT from all local land use and other ordinances.
In effect, MDOT is trying to tighten its grip on transportation planning while claiming to open the process to citizens. The state agency continues to view local governments as barriers to progress rather than as partners. Local people, meanwhile, correctly point out that they have to live with the road projects, so their opinions should count.
On a recent public radio program, Greg Rosine, chief administrative officer at MDOT, said the attempt to end local control “was to make sure that you didn’t have one township voting to thwart the will of the majority.”
On the same radio show, Traverse City community activist John Nelson countered that MDOT always assumes that the majority supports its plans, and works to wear down anyone with a different idea. “What we need is planning from the bottom up, with MDOT listening rather than trying to push through its projects,” Mr. Nelson said.

Coalition Charts New Direction
Reflecting Mr. Nelson’s perspective, citizen groups across the state have stepped up to chart a new direction for Michigan’s future and to take charge of the state’s top-down transportation planning process. Many groups have joined the Institute’s Michigan Transportation and Land Use Coalition, run with support from the Michigan Environmental Council. The Coalition links 25 member groups across the state and provides organizing and communications training, as well as a voice in Lansing.
The Coalition is seeking reforms in state policy to: Direct a full 10% of the MDOT budget to local bus systems; provide citizens with a much stronger role in local transportation and land use planning, and; ensure road repairs and redesigns occur before major new highway construction.
The growing statewide movement is making clear that pavement and progress no longer are fellow travelers.
“We’re working to raise the level of understanding about the connections between road-building and sprawl, and to improve transit options in our region,” said Thom Peterson, president of the board of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. His group is opposed to plans for a 27-mile bypass of Grand Haven through some of the state’s most productive farmland.
“We joined the Coalition to create a chorus of voices for transportation reform across the state, and it has helped us deliver the message to Lansing,” he said. “The worst thing to do would be to assume that MDOT’s plans are a ‘done deal.’ Just look around the state and see that their plans are coming undone.”

CONTACTS: Paul Bruce, People for US-23 Freeway Alternatives, 517-739-3640; James Kirschensteiner, FHWA, 517-377-1880, ext. 41; Bryan Knowles, Taxpayers for Common Sense, 202-546-8500, ext. 127; Rob Oreskovich, CAUSE, 734-854-8395, Web site www.stopi73.com; Greg Rosine, MDOT, 517-373-0718; John Nelson, 231-941-1099; Thom Peterson, WMEAC, 616-846-8875; Kelly Thayer at the Institute, 231-882-4723, e-mail trans@mlui.org.

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