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The Latest in Transportation Planning:

It's not just about cars and new roads

December 1, 1999 | By Kelly Thayer
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Surrounded by thick forests and lying alongside the clear waters of Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City was once a place truly apart. The city's residents enjoyed uncongested streets, quiet neighborhoods, and schools, shops, and offices close to their front doors.

During the past decade, though, Traverse City attracted booming development that brought many new businesses downtown. While the city's population of around 15,000 residents remained nearly unchanged, the pace of life quickened as thousands of people commuted from the growing townships into the city each day to shop and work.

And even as the city successfully redeveloped its business core -- bucking a national trend -- some residents objected. With increasing frequency in 1998, they pressured city leaders to halt downtown redevelopment because of fears it would lead to congestion and parking problems in their neighborhoods.

Russ Soyring, the city's planning director, was thus faced with two choices. He could recommend that Traverse City end its redevelopment effort. After all, if the downtown withers, as so many other urban centers have in the past 30 years, that certainly would solve the traffic problem. Or he could recommend an advanced traffic management and land use plan that reduces congestion and maintains the city's economic momentum.

Fortunately, Traverse City has chosen the latter. The city has teamed with government organizations and private groups to develop a traffic management plan. In November, Traverse City applied to the Federal Highway Administration for a $250,000 grant to fund the project. Mr. Soyring says city leaders are so committed to the idea that even if the application is turned down, they will seek funding from other sources.

The three-phase proposal puts particular emphasis on holding public meetings, organizing workshops, and taking other steps to enable citizens to make transportation decisions in partnership with city and state officials. "I think there's an expectation that's much different than it was a decade ago, when we all put our full faith in highway planners," Mr. Soyring said. "Now, the public is starting to wake up and say, 'My life's not any better. The congestion hasn't gone away despite the new roads. Hey, why can't we try something else?' "

A Drive for Change

In seeking a solution that marries urban redevelopment goals with more efficient management of cars and trucks, Traverse City has joined a host of communities in Michigan and other states that are developing advanced alternatives to tough transportation problems. Unlike previous eras, when new highways were considered the only solution, state and federal governments now offer local residents the opportunity to try a range of alternatives specifically designed to suit their needs.

In Traverse City's downtown, that may mean a combination of synchronizing street signals, changing traffic patterns on some streets, constructing parking garages above and below ground, investing in shuttle buses, constructing bike paths and walkways, and taking steps to make the area even more walkable and bikeable.

Traverse City's proposal reflects a formidable transition in how policy makers are setting transportation priorities. It is the direct result of a 1991 law -- the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) -- which encouraged cities and states to reconsider how they thought about transportation and promised ample federal funds to develop solutions that did not ruin neighborhoods or harm the environment. The big idea of ISTEA was to open the planning process to more public oversight as a way to influence how transportation funds are spent.

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