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Community Opportunity in Petoskey

Bypass demise yields unique transportation partnership

January 20, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI Staff
  When citizens finally won the battle to halt a bypass last September they simultaneously extracted a promise of funds and technical assistance to preserve farmland and the rural character of Emmet County.

PETOSKEY— Four months after the Michigan Department of Transportation formally ended its plan to build a $90 million highway bypass of this growing coastal community, a local planning committee is drawing the broad outlines of a unique land use and transportation study as well as a civic partnership to carry it out. 

Earlier this month about 60 residents attended the committee’s first full public hearing to consider a $275,000 request for planning funds promised by the Department of Transportation. The application acknowledges the shortcomings of the old bypass and emphasizes the need to preserve existing land uses, identify problems before finding solutions, and continually seek public comment. The Northwest Michigan Council of Governments is managing the application and overseeing public outreach until a transportation consultant is hired in mid-2003. The study is expected to take 12-15 months.

The citizen-led initiative, the first of its kind in Michigan, has significance well beyond Petoskey and Emmet County for new approaches to community design. When citizens finally won the battle to halt the old bypass last September they simultaneously extracted a promise of funds and technical assistance from the state  for a locally managed study on easing congestion while preserving both rural character and a remarkably diverse downtown.

The work here could well become a model for how the state and local governments can cooperate on road building, land use and, ultimately, Smart Growth.

Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, who supports such initiatives, recently named former Republican Governor William G. Milliken and former Democratic state Attorney General Frank J. Kelly as chairmen of a new state Smart Growth Commission. Advocates of land use policy reform believe the commission could propose policy changes that would strengthen the state’s approach to investing in transportation and solving sprawl, and thereby aid efforts to improve the quality of life, like the one underway here. Moreover, given the state’s $1.8 billion budget deficit, the Smart Growth Commission also could propose novel approaches for saving billions of dollars by reducing the need for new and wider roads.

Many of those who attended the January planning meeting here said they recognized the significance of their work. If they are successful, Petoskey may well be seen as an incubator of long-term transportation solutions that save money, move people and goods, and curb sprawl -- all central tenets of the Granholm administration.

“I think it’s truly unique for MDOT to fund a local study like this,” said Petoskey Mayor Kate Marshall, “Now the only way to come to a true solution is for the governments to work together cooperatively.”

Bypass Impasse
Petoskey put itself in such a pioneering position on transportation and land use planning by steadfastly waving a big red stop sign at a proposed bypass that would have flooded the community in a sea of suburban sprawl. Instead, citizens shined a green light on a local planning process that has strengthened and sustained the 107-year-old city and the surrounding community. The 15-year struggle also provided an object lesson in the power that comes with resisting state promises of cash for supposed congestion relief.

The bypass saga began in 1987 in this region of less than 14,000 residents when backroom talks between business interests and then-Congressman Bob Davis led to a $28 million federal earmark for a bypass study. With virtually no expert assessment of the community’s mobility ailments, proponents of the new highway prescribed a cure that critics said was sugar-coated with a big federal down payment.

When Petoskey city residents and leaders balked at building the bypass inside city limits the state pushed its proposed highway out into the neighboring rural townships. But that woke two slumbering giants — Resort and Bear Creek townships, where the revised route would go.

It took farmers and other township residents a few years to convince Congressman Davis’ successor, Democratic Representative Bart Stupak, to amend the federal funding to study upgrading local roads, not just building a new highway. In 1996, opponents of the bypass, including elected leaders of the two townships, also asked for help from the Michigan Land Use Institute, then a fledgling non-profit research and advocacy organization. The Institute raised money, hired a transportation planner, worked with citizens, and developed a technically sound alternative to the bypass that it called Smart Roads: Petoskey.

Obstinacy Then Defeat
MDOT, though, refused to broaden its focus and in late 2001 issued a follow-up proposal for a 3- and 4-lane rural highway with wide medians that would cost $90 million. Local citizens dubbed it “I-75 through the countryside.” When Resort Township surveyed its residents by mail, 64 percent said they opposed the bypass.

The whole deal came undone last September when, after 15 years and $4 million in studies, MDOT’s director came to Petoskey and, stunningly, announced that the state would scuttle the bypass and finance a locally controlled transportation initiative. The department then passed out a newsletter stating what many residents had always insisted was true: The bypass would not have eased traffic because most motorists were stopping or starting in Petoskey, not just passing through.

“Another highway would have been a regional approach to a local traffic problem,” said Denny Keiser, supervisor of Bear Creek Township, who also leads the inter-governmental Petoskey Area Open Space Task Force. “MDOT’s study didn’t examine the local roads; now we will.”

But at least one proponent of the state’s 15-year effort to build a conventional highway around Petoskey expressed his skepticism. “What do you hope to add to, or subtract from, the previous 20 years of studies?” asked an incredulous Herb Carlson, a former mayor who led the campaign in the late 1980s to build the bypass

MDOT’s forced reversal from patrician to partner is without precedent, so both local and state government officials are proceeding without a road map. But they say their new approach, which is pointing Petoskey in a more sustainable direction, could ultimately do the same for the entire state and advance Smart Growth policies that strengthen cities and preserve Michigan’s natural features.

“It’s not going to remain pristine and beautiful here if we widen the roads and encourage more traffic,” said Walter Hergt, who during the public meeting this month cited studies showing that people drive more when roads widen. He called for reducing traffic volumes by both narrowing roads and increasing public transit service.

 “I hope we don’t overlook alternate modes of transportation—public transit, pedestrian, and the like,” said John Rohe, a Bear Creek resident and prominent activist and attorney who helped ignite the original grassroots opposition to the bypass.

A Lesson From The Southeast
Even as this region’s bypass opponents celebrate the new planning study, they also recognize that the work is fraught with obstacles. They acknowledge that without significant transportation and land use policy reforms from Lansing, the unfolding process could produce many good ideas that never come to pass.

One big impediment: Michigan does not pay for building local roads. Citizens in Oakland County, roughly 250 miles south of Emmet County, discovered that in the late 1990s when officials began discussing ways to deal with increasing traffic congestion in the county's western reaches.

With the public and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opposed to building new roads through areas blessed with wetlands and inland lakes, MDOT did the almost unthinkable and offered $1 million in state money for a local road analysis.

The resulting West Oakland County Corridor Study recommended intersection redesigns, road widening, and short new connecting roads using the existing county road system. The alternative approach was similar in overall concept to what the Michigan Land Use Institute proposed in its Smart Roads: Petoskey plan.

But because none of the proposals involved state highways, no further state funding was available to pay for them. With Oakland County also short on road dollars and long on transportation priorities, the proposed changes, costing tens of millions of dollars, must be phased in over the next few decades as local funds become available. A committee continues to study local financing options.

“There is a great plan in place that a dozen communities approved,” said Craig Bryson, spokesman for the Road Commission for Oakland County. “But right now there’s no money to do virtually any of it.”

Petoskey’s Trump Card
Unlike Oakland County, though, Petoskey has a trump card: In the mid-1990s, Rep. Stupak redirected the $28 million federal money for the Petoskey Bypass to local roads.

The question officials here ask is whether the Bush Administration, operating a government in red ink and focused on war, will make those funds available to carry out their new plan? Federal funds for improving local roads studied with state money are truly rare. Federal funding mainly supports high-speed, high-capacity routes.

A staff member in Mr. Stupak’s office said in an interview, though, that the money will be available once agreement is reached by citizens and local governments. “Bart has a history of backing, and finding the funds for whatever the local governments come up with on a consensus basis,” said Lynne Jensen, the congressman’s legislative director.

“I want to make sure that whatever we do enhances the character of the community,” added Bill Fedus, supervisor of Resort Township and a former bypass supporter who  serves on the local study committee. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that transportation and land use are connected and keeping that in mind is the key to solving our problems.”

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and manages the Institute’s statewide transportation policy reform project. His journalism, energy for grassroots organizing, technical expertise, and persistence were instrumental in helping citizens defeat the Petoskey Bypass. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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