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Dash for the Cash

State misses opportunity with five-year spending plan

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

Imagine loaning money to a neighbor and getting paid back less than you lent.

That was the position Michigan found itself in for years. The state sent gasoline tax money to the U.S. government and got back a smaller share in federal aid; meanwhile some states received more than they gave. Michigan officials blamed the imbalance for the trouble they had paying for road repairs.

Last summer, though, Congress approved a new law, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), that increases federal funding for transportation in Michigan by 61%. Michigan will receive an average of $815 million in federal transportation funds each year through 2003.

In response, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) released its first-ever five-year spending plan. It allocates $4.9 billion to repair state highways and $1.4 billion to build new highways and widen, reconstruct and resurface existing ones.

More Highways Won't Reduce Congestion
Transportation advocates say that building more highways won't help Michigan motorists. New roads spur more congestion as sprawling strip malls and subdivisions pop up along the roadway and invite more traffic. And more highways require even more maintenance, which the state has found difficult to provide.

They also note that Michigan is missing a great opportunity under TEA-21 to improve mobility without paving over more open space. The law is so flexible in its spending priorities that more than half of federal aid for highways can be spent on other transportation options. These include building light rail lines, adding and improving urban and suburban bus service, and constructing bike lanes and paths.

MDOT officials say their plan responds to the public's repeated call to fix Michigan's roads. "We're mostly building on existing road investments, trying to shore up the system with increased funding that's been provided with TEA-21 and the gas tax," said Lou Lambert, deputy director of the Bureau of Transportation Planning.

But MDOT also is carving out brand new corridors, such as the $420 million South Beltline in Grand Rapids and a proposed $70 million bypass around Petoskey. Likewise, the state is studying a new route for US-31 between Grand Haven and Holland that would bury farmland in two rural townships.

Meanwhile, urban bus service providers across Michigan struggle to offer adequate service as they compete for limited state funds for public transit.

" MDOT should recognize their role in perpetuating an automobile-dominated transportation and land use model that we cannot afford," said Thom Peterson, board president of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, an opponent of the South Beltline. "MDOT should be taking a lead role in planning transportation projects that do not promote sprawling development." ~ K.T.

CONTACTS: Thom Peterson, WMEAC, 616-846-8875; Gary Naeyaert, MDOT Director of Communications, 517-335-3084; Kelly Thayer, Transportation Project Coordinator at the Institute, 616-882-4723.

High-Profile Highway Projects: A Status Report

Traverse City Bypass — The Grand Traverse County Road Commission is using state and federal funding to study this 33-mile, $300 million highway and bridge proposal. Local citizens and the Institute have detailed an alternative plan that would alleviate traffic congestion, save taxpayer money, preserve wetlands, and prevent further sprawl by re-designing existing roads.

US-23 to Alpena — MDOT is planning a 100-mile, $800 million widening of US-23 from Standish to Alpena. Northeast Michigan residents and the Institute oppose the damaging project, which is not warranted by traffic volume and would result in the single largest wetlands loss in Michigan. The state justifies the project with vague promises of economic growth.

US-31 in Grand Haven — MDOT has proposed a four-lane, 30-mile long highway between Grand Haven and Holland on a route different from existing US-31 through two rural townships. The agency released a draft environmental impact statement last winter, but has not yet chosen a preferred route.

US-131 in Cadillac — The $86.5 million Cadillac Bypass will be completed in 2001. A $107.8 million widening of US-131 to four lanes from Cadillac to north of Manton will be completed by 2004. MDOT also is studying a proposal for a new highway connection from US-131 to I-75.

Petoskey Bypass — MDOT is proposing to spend $70 million for a 9.5-mile road through farmland in Resort and Bear Creek townships, several miles east of the city, saying it would alleviate summer traffic. Concerned residents are promoting instead a far less costly new express route using existing roads. (See article on page 4.)

South Beltline in Grand Rapids — Supporters of this $420 million, 20-mile long highway linking interstates 96 and 196 south of Grand Rapids say it will relieve traffic congestion. Opponents counter that it is going to worsen congestion by encouraging sprawl and more driving. (See article on page 13.) ~K.T.

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