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DEQ Blisters Road Commission Conduct on Proposed Bridge

Critics say letter draws project closer to unavoidable end

March 2, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe
  The state Department of Environmental Quality said the local road agency produced a “seriously flawed” scientific study three years ago to justify construction that would cause enormous environmental damage.

TRAVERSE CITY — The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has wholly rejected as “seriously flawed” several basic conclusions of the scientific and environmental study that the Grand Traverse County Road Commission relied on to justify building a four-lane highway and bridge across the Boardman River just south of Traverse City.

In a letter made public today the state DEQ said the road commission’s study, which was completed three years ago at a cost of $1 million, used an “erroneous assumption” to reject a credible and less damaging citizen-based transportation plan that it was obligated by law to thoroughly evaluate.

Critics of the $45 million highway and bridge said the DEQ’s letter confirmed what they had been saying for years: The road commission deliberately and illegally avoided studying the alternative citizen plan, Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region, because commission officials were determined to build a new route across the Boardman River, almost at any cost.

In effect, said critics of the proposed Hartman-Hammond bridge and highway, the DEQ concluded that the road commission did not conduct the meaningful scientific work that is lawfully required and instead advanced a highway project that would cause the greatest damage to natural resources.

Likely A Final Blow For a Disputed Project
The DEQ’s letter is the latest and most devastating government-rendered blow ever to a project that already has been rejected by three other state and federal environmental agencies. The blistering critique, coupled with the highway project’s soaring cost and eroding political support, is nearly certain to bring the controversial 17-year plan to build a new route across the Boardman River to a close.

"The DEQ's analysis of this project is right on target,” said Scott Howard, an attorney with the Traverse City-based law firm of Olson, Bzdok & Howard, which represents several citizen groups opposed to the highway project. “The DEQ's letter clearly lays out how the road commission has failed to establish that there are no feasible and prudent alternatives to the project or that it has minimized the environmental impact of the project to the greatest extent possible. The DEQ ought to be commended for such a thorough examination of the proposed project."

“It is gratifying to see our state environmental watchdog agency doing the job it's supposed to do,” added Ken Smith, executive director of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, who has opposed the Hartman-Hammond bridge and highway since the road commission first proposed it in 1987. “Now let's hope we can all turn our attention to constructive ways of fixing traffic congestion that won't wreck our environment. The Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region plan is a good place to start."

Road Commission Mystified
The state environmental agency’s guidance letter, which the road commission requested, came one day before senior leaders of the county road agency were scheduled to meet in Lansing with the DEQ and other state and federal natural resource agencies. Among those expected to attend the meeting to discuss the Hartman-Hammond road and bridge is Jay Hooper, the chairman of the road commission’s board, who never before has personally engaged environmental regulators about the proposal. A second county official planning to attend is Michael Dillenbeck, the road commission’s manager, who has overseen the project for years.

Mr. Hooper did not return telephone calls placed Tuesday to his home and office, but recently made public statements openly questioning whether the Hartman-Hammond project can proceed.

Mr. Dillenbeck seemed confused and frustrated by the DEQ’s finding. “We’ve sent a significant amount of material to the DEQ. I don’t know if they looked at our November submission or not,” he said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “Until we sit down tomorrow together, we won’t know what they’re saying.”

DEQ Letter is Clear
The DEQ’s Deputy Director, Skip Pruss, authored the state’s letter and will lead the Wednesday afternoon meeting. Mr. Pruss said in an interview that his agency’s message will remain consistent: The road commission’s environmental study was “just wrong in one important particular — the evaluation of alternatives.” He added that this significant error is “cause for concern” that the road commission’s computer model for how well the proposed bridge and highway would move traffic might also be “suspect.” Several citizen groups and a national transportation expert have contended for years that the proposed bridge and highway would not move traffic efficiently and might actually make congestion worse.

Mr. Pruss said that, at the very least, the road commission would have to conduct a new $1 million, multi-year environmental study. Moreover, the law requires that such a study must evaluate competing ideas that are effective at moving traffic while still conserving the natural environment. In other words, a thorough evaluation such as the one the DEQ now calls for very likely means that the road commission’s project would probably never merit state approval.

The road commission’s proposed project would widen Hartman Road to four lanes south of Traverse City, widen the west end of Hammond Road to five lanes, and link them with about 1,200 feet of road, bridge, and fill through the vibrant Boardman River valley. On the east end of the project, Three Mile Road also would expand to four and five lanes.

The planned route would take the new road and bridge straight through a wild stretch of the river that is home to bear and beaver and otter, yet less than three miles from downtown Traverse City. Public concern about the damage the new road and bridge would cause has, since  1996, turned the road commission's proposal into one of the most widely watched public policy disputes in northern Michigan. Last summer a standing room only crowd of nearly 400 residents jammed a DEQ public hearing on the proposal, most of them to express their determined opposition.

A Ruse Finally Uncovered
At the core of the DEQ’s critique is how the road commission summarily dismissed a citizen-developed alternative transportation plan that is based to a large degree on modernizing and enlarging an existing bridge across the Boardman River just upstream from the site of the proposed bridge. The existing bridge sits atop an old dam at Cass Road. The road commission contended in its 2001 environmental study that it wouldn’t evaluate the alternative plan because repairing and slightly widening the Cass Road bridge, which the commission owns, would harm the adjacent Grand Traverse County Nature Education Reserve. The federal Transportation Act contains an environmental provision, Section 4(f), that the commission contended prohibited it from building a new highway in a park. 

For years, citizen groups and their attorneys provided research showing the road commission actually did own the necessary right-of-way for the upgrades, and that there would be no violation of federal law. In a September 2002 legal deposition, Mr. Dillenbeck conceded the point but continued in his public statements to argue that widening the Cass Road bridge was illegal. When the DEQ insisted last year on clarity, the road commission’s attorney in November finally acknowledged that the commission could modernize the Cass Road bridge without any legal impediment.

Attorneys for the citizen groups said the road commission’s persistent and inaccurate claims were a ruse and a purposeful effort to avoid conducting an analysis of all "feasible and prudent alternatives" to its Hartman-Hammond proposal. The DEQ said such an analysis is required by law and that in failing to assess the Smart  Roads plan, the road commission "undermined the process" to such an extent that the state could not "rely on the conclusions" of the road commission's environmental study to conduct its own review.

"For a number of years, the road commission improperly used Section 4(f) — a federal law that is intended to protect the environment — to reject the cheaper, faster, and less-environmentally destructive Smart Roads alternative," said Shannon Fisk, a staff attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.

Kelly Thayer, a journalist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Northwest Michigan Transportation and Land Use Project. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org

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