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A Growing National Movement, Finding A Fresh Approach

Petoskey bypass opposed

June 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Building more highways is an outdated and wasteful answer to the problem of how to efficiently move people and goods

Al Foster, the 68-year-old supervisor of Bear Creek Township, is a dairy farmer and one of Emmet County's most respected local leaders. He also is heading up an influential group of Petoskey area farmers who have allied themselves with business owners, environmentalists, and community associations in a growing civic movement aimed at reforming transportation planning for the region.

The citizens' immediate goal is to stop a proposed $70 million, 9.5-mile highway bypass outside Petoskey that would stimulate sprawl and ruin a thriving dairy farm economy in Bear Creek and Resort townships.

"This new road doesn't make any sense," said Mr. Foster. "If it was built it would be so far out of town that it would take people out of their way. We don't need it."

For the long term, the community is designing a less costly and damaging alternative transportation plan that relies on existing roads. Such a plan, coupled with new land use guidelines, would encourage more compact patterns of development, and keep the region's rich farmland in production.

For the past 50 years, new highways have been seen as a tangible symbol of community progress, a harbinger of economic development, and a measure of political clout.

This perception is changing as communities recognize that new highways intensify traffic problems, waste a fortune in taxpayer dollars, and exact a heavy toll on neighborhoods and the environment. Northern Michigan has become part of a growing national movement, which recognizes that building more highways is an outdated and wasteful answer to the problem of how to efficiently move people and goods.

In Petoskey, Traverse City, and Alpena, citizens are challenging more than $2 billion in proposed new highways, the most expensive and ambitious road-building program in Michigan since the 1960s. Instead, local leaders are convinced that better solutions to traffic congestion lie in combining land use measures that encourage denser patterns of development with more cost-effective transportation investments, such as:

• Repairing existing roads and bridges

• Installing express bus service to connect village centers

• Building new light rail lines on old freight corridors Constructing bicycle and pedestrian pathways • Making it possible for more people to walk

Backing up this approach is a recent study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which found that households in cities with good public transportation systems take 18% fewer car trips and travel 36% fewer miles.

"The bottom line is that traffic congestion is increasing four times faster than population," said Joe Anderson, Chairman of the Whitewater Township Planning Commission. "If you know that, you know that building your way out of the traffic problem can't be done. I'm not aware of any road building project that has solved traffic congestion."

This sort of thinking now is becoming part of the mainstream. 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:

• About 40,000 Americans are killed each year in automobile accidents - more than by guns and drugs combined.

• Cities have spread out at a rate three to six times faster than population growth. The hollowing out of city centers has destroyed businesses, marooned the inner city poor, weakened public school systems, drastically increased criminal violence, and contributed to the loss of community.

• Families are forced to buy fleets of cars, and spend an average of $5,000 per vehicle each year to keep them running.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of cars and light trucks increased from 72 million in 1960 to 193 million in 1995, a 265% increase. During the same period, the United States population grew by 44%.

• The progress the nation has made in reducing air and water pollution is at risk of being undone. Polluted runoff from roads and parking lots now accounts for a significant portion of all water contamination in the United States. And even though engines are more efficient, there are so many more of them that gasoline consumption has increased nearly four billion gallons annually since 1970. Releases to the atmosphere of carbon dioxide - which cause global warming - have increased to 1.6 million tons annually, 40% more than in 1971.

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