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Great Park or Bad Bridge?

Citizen hearing July 17 could sink Boardman project

July 10, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Grand Traverse County Road Commission
  A proposed four- and five-lane highway and bridge through the Boardman River valley would ruin one of the Grand Traverse region’s special places.

The Grand Traverse region is about to become the recipient of one of the state’s best parks or one of the area’s worst highways. Take your pick.

On Thursday evening, July 17, citizens will help decide what we’ll get: Either a four-lane bridge and highway through the Boardman River valley or a remarkable 1.5-mile extension of a magnificent county park in the exact same spot.

That’s the night staff from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality come to town to listen to public opinion about the proposed Hartman-Hammond road and bridge and its likely effect on the Grand Traverse region and the lives of thousands of citizens. DEQ officials want to hear about the potential harm the proposed bridge would have on historic, cultural, scenic, ecological, and recreational assets. Based on what the agency staff hears, later this summer the DEQ will decide whether or not to allow the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to fill in the valley’s wetlands and reroute its streams so it can build the road and bridge.

The decision should be an easy one for the DEQ to make. Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, ran and won office last year on a platform that stressed protecting the environment, improving the quality of life, taming sprawl, and fixing highways before building new ones. Halting the proposed Boardman River bridge is consistent with all four goals.

In addition, it was Ms. Granholm’s predecessor, former Republican Governor John Engler, who committed state funds to the road and bridge. And it was the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund under Gov. Granholm that offered millions of dollars to support the park expansion.

Alternate Route Advised
State law requires that in order to avoid unnecessary environmental damage the DEQ must consider reasoned alternatives to building the bridge. Four years ago the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Coalition for Sensible Growth developed Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region, a technically qualified alternative plan for moving traffic that is much less expensive to build and much more effective than the proposed bridge. The citizen-led plan calls for fixing the Cass Road bridge just a mile south of the site of the proposed new bridge, redesigning poorly functioning roads nearby, and connecting Keystone and Hammond roads to create a new east-west corridor for traffic south of Traverse City.

The Grand Traverse County Road Commission has steadfastly refused to consider the ideas that Smart Roads presents. But the Institute and its partners are intent on convincing the DEQ they have merit.

If the DEQ agrees with us and denies a permit to fill wetlands, the long-dreaded project is dead, although the county road commission can appeal to the agency’s director, Steve Chester.

If the state says “yes,” the environmental and conservation community has pledged to appeal or sue or both — whatever it takes to protect the valley forever. In fact, All the Way to the Bay canoe racers, the Coalition for Sensible Growth, the Michigan Land Use Institute, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, and the Sierra Club did sue in early 2002. The judge ruled that the suit must wait for the outcome of this DEQ permit process.

The stakes are high enough that the pillars of the region are speaking out.

“I think this proposed bridge would be an environmental and transportation disaster for the community that can never be repaired or compensated for,” said Helen Milliken, former Michigan First Lady and a Michigan Land Use Institute board member. “What we would lose is unbelievable and unthinkable.”

To understand the deeply held view of Mrs. Milliken, who plans to attend Thursday’s hearing, requires recognizing the dimensions of this project and the promise of the new park.

First the highway
Its location: The proposed Hartman-Hammond-Three Mile road and bridge would start less than a half-mile south of the hectic intersection of U.S. 31 and South Airport Road (by the Grand Traverse Mall). It would head east through where the buffalo now roam, into the Boardman River valley, and up a steep bluff to Hammond Road. Then it would turn north at Three Mile Road and dump its traffic onto U.S. 31, practically at the entrance to Traverse City State Park on East Grand Traverse Bay. The new road would knock down several homes and businesses and render two schools and a few churches nearly worthless due to noise and unsafe surroundings.

Its size and scale: The four and five-lane highway, with an 80-foot-wide median in places, would accommodate 55 mph traffic. A four-lane bridge, more than a football field long and 70 feet wide, would loom just 10 feet above the Boardman River. The rest of the valley directly under the bridge would be filled to support the road. About 30,000 cars and trucks a day would race across it.

The sound in the valley would exceed that heard in a typical commercial zone; within a few hundred feet of the bridge it would be like standing near a gas-powered lawn mower.  The bridge's price tag has ballooned to an unprecedented $40 million, $10 million more than what the Grand Traverse County Road Commission said it would cost just nine months ago. U.S. Congressman Dave Camp, a Republican, is seeking federal funds for about half that amount. The state would cover another third — $16 million — and residents of Grand Traverse County could pick up the rest — $6 million.

Constructing the bridge requires dredging and filling about five acres of wetlands — all directly connected to the Boardman River. It would “make this the largest project impacting the water quality of the Boardman River that I can recount,” wrote Grand Traverse Baykeeper John Nelson, of the Watershed Center, in a letter of concern to the DEQ. “Since some 30 percent of the water discharged into Grand Traverse Bay comes from the Boardman River, the water quality of the Bay is also directly impacted.”

Mr. Nelson’s letter notes that significant and irreplaceable Northern White Cedar swamp would be destroyed and other wetlands, including a portion of the headwaters of Jack’s Creek, would be buried.

Now the park
The 420-acre Grand Traverse County Nature Education Reserve currently runs along the Boardman River for 2.5 miles from just south of Beitner Road to just north of the Sabin Dam. It’s full of trout and anglers, songbirds and birdwatchers, bald eagles and nervous rodents, water snakes and wide-eyed paddlers. The park is fabulous and full of vitality. And it’s about to gain 80 acres and 1.5 more miles along the river  — an amazing increase in its size and ecological value.

“The Boardman River is the quintessential northern Michigan river: Cold, clear, lively; paved with gravel and sand; home to trout, otter, beaver, and mink; lined with mature white cedars,” said author and angler Jerry Dennis, who grew up fishing the river and in 2002 formed Anglers of the Boardman to protect it from the proposed bridge. “That a lovely stretch of the river flows through a quiet, undeveloped valley of wetlands and meadows within walking distance of Traverse City is an amazing stroke of luck. The Boardman between Sabin Dam and Boardman Lake is a priceless treasure, and we owe it to our children to preserve it.”

The Solution
The graceful way out of this mess is simple: The DEQ should deny the wetland-filling permit and Gov. Granholm should personally dedicate the opening of the expanded park.

“Even people who are open to a new highway being built are saying that the Hartman-Hammond project would just be another South Airport Road,” said Traverse City Mayor Margaret Dodd, who in early June convinced the Traverse City Commission to formally oppose the project by a decisive 6-1 margin. “For the city, by the road commission’s own numbers, it would increase traffic by 25 percent in the already threatened Old Town neighborhood. The whole thing just doesn’t make sense.”

Kelly Thayer manages the Michigan Land Use Institute's statewide transportation project. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org. Much more information about protecting the Boardman River valley is at the Institute’s website, mlui.org. Click on the “Bridge Out” icon.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will conduct its only public hearing to consider wetland permits for the construction of the Hartman-Hammond road and bridge on Thursday, July 17 at 6:30 p.m. at West Junior High School’s Little Theater Room, 3950 W. Silver Lake Road, in Traverse City.

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