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Granholm Aides Study Controversial Bridge

Granholm administration can stop a senseless highway

August 3, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe
  Community advocates in the Grand Traverse region say the Granholm administration has a golden opportunity to stop a wasteful and expensive highway through the Boardman River valley and confirm the governor's commitment to Smart Growth.

TRAVERSE CITY — As Governor Jennifer Granholm's Smart Growth council prepares this month to recommend steps to curb sprawl and strengthen Michigan’s communities, citizens here have demonstrated in recent weeks that they support those goals and are urging the governor to take an extraordinary step to prove her commitment.  

Since mid-July residents around the Grand Traverse region voted two-to-one for a tax increase to expand public transit, turned down a township plan to intensify development in a farm district, and showed up in record numbers to oppose a new highway and bridge through the vibrant Boardman River valley. These events reflect strong public support for key elements of the governor’s agenda: maintaining the vitality of existing town centers, preserving the countryside, and taming Michigan’s ongoing road-construction spree.

It is the proposed highway and bridge, however, that will have the most profound and lasting affect on the region, whose extraordinary natural beauty draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. And it is the highway and bridge that the Granholm administration can curtail. In order for the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to get its way and push the new road through the Boardman River valley it must persuade the state Department of Environmental Quality to allow construction crews to completely bury rare types of wetlands and alter trout streams.

For more than a decade, the county road commission ignored the will of voters and citizen groups and advocated  for a 4- and 5-lane highway with a giant bridge through the prized valley just south of Traverse City. The commission insists the new road will alleviate traffic congestion, a view that its own documents dispute. The Traverse City Commission has repeatedly rejected the $40 million plan — most recently in June by a six-to-one margin — because elected leaders are convinced it would not deliver any traffic relief to the city itself and little to surrounding communities.

Former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken has been an outspoken critic, as have more than a hundred conservationists who formed Anglers of the Boardman to oppose the project. And several citizen groups have developed a detailed alternative, Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region, that works as least as well as the road commission’s proposal, costs far less, fixes an existing bridge instead of building a new one, and poses little — if any — environmental harm.

The Governor’s Agenda: A Reality Check
In effect, the proposed road and bridge through the Boardman River valley presents Gov. Granholm a poster child for what, first as a candidate and now as the state’s top elected official, she pledged to fight. The governor has advanced a “fix-it-first” policy of repairing roads before building new ones; she formed the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council to identify sprawl’s consequences and practical solutions; and vowed to allow science, not politics, to drive environmental policy. In addition, she has toured the state to promote tourism, sailing on Grand Traverse Bay, which has recovered from the days of heavy industrial use to become the region’s clean-and-clear economic engine.

While officially a county road commission proposal, the Hartman-Hammond road and bridge project relies on $16 million earmarked by the administration of former Republican Governor John Engler and planning assistance from the Michigan Department of Transportation. The final decision whether to build it now rests with the current governor’s Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which by October 15 must decide whether to issue permits allowing the road commission to fill wetlands and alter streams flowing into the Boardman River. That fact places a crucial decision about the bridge and highway proposal squarely in the Granholm administration’s lap.

There’s plenty of scientific evidence to allow the state DEQ to scuttle the highway if the department is allowed to make the kind of science-based decision that Gov. Granholm has promised would be an administration hallmark. Michigan’s Wetland Protection Act requires the road commission to prove that its proposal not only compensates for the damage the bridge and highway would do to wetlands, water quality and wildlife, but that it is the only feasible design alternative for accomplishing its stated goal — reducing area-wide traffic congestion. Making the stakes higher, and even ironic, the county road commission proposal would cut directly through the planned extension of the county's own best park, which the state also is supporting with a $505,000 grant for the 1.5-mile expansion.

Public Outpouring, Expert Testimony
On July 17, the DEQ held a public hearing in Traverse City on the wetland permit. Nearly 400 people attended — an unprecedented turnout on the issue — and about 75 percent of those speaking opposed sacrificing a prized place to more traffic, noise, and pollution. A coalition of public interest groups has since submitted a several-hundred page document that, with the help of hired experts, explains the scientific basis for opposing the highway project.

The document, developed by the Michigan Land Use Institute, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, Coalition for Sensible Growth, and All the Way to the Bay, contends that the county road commission highway proposal would:

  • Degrade the water quality of the Boardman River by filling several adjacent acres of rare Northern white cedar wetlands and the headwaters of a designated trout stream flowing into the river.
  • Spur sprawl development along the road corridor, generating polluted storm water that would flow into the river.
  • Destroy critical wildlife habitat for deer, bear, coyote, and numerous smaller species and reduce their population.
  • Fail to move traffic, control growth, and prevent environmental harm as well as the Smart Roads alternative.

“The Road Commission proposes to build what is essentially a massive wall across the valley of the Boardman River, burying and/or otherwise destroying or impairing many acres of extremely valuable wetland habitat,” concluded Barbara Madsen, a professor of botany and wetland ecology at the University of Michigan who conducted multiple site visits to the project area. “The application does not come close to adequately describing or acknowledging the scope of the damage that would be caused by the project.”

Ms. Madsen’s report continues, “Thus the figure of 4.35 acres of wetland impact given in the application is only a starting point; the actual area of impact will be many times larger, and the impacts will continue to worsen for decades.”

Likewise, Donald Inman, a wildlife ecologist and former Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife habitat specialist with extensive experience in assessing the impact of transportation projects, also concluded the project’s habitat impact would significantly exceed road commission estimates by reducing the area’s wildlife value, especially for deer and bear. He added, “Other, smaller species of wildlife may or may not adapt to this further intrusion into their habitat.”

Refuting the Road Commission
Such expert testimony supports what the groups challenging the wetland-filling permit have contended for years: The road commission grossly underestimates the highway’s impacts to natural resources and fish and wildlife, and to the Grand Traverse County Nature Education Reserve, a 420-acre gem whose planned extension will encompass the area the highway would cross.

The nature reserve is one of the region’s best spots for trout fishing, paddling, hiking, birding, and relaxing in general. Under the Wetland Protection Act, the MDEQ must consider not only the project’s impact on wetlands and wildlife, but also the “probable impact on recognized historic, cultural, scenic, ecological, or recreational values.”
That broad level of legal protection is encouraging to Traverse City resident Susan Boyd, who has paddled the threatened section of the Boardman River more than 200 times and organizes the annual All the Way to the Bay canoe race on the river.

“The stretch of the Boardman River where the proposed bridge would be built is among the most quiet and scenic of the entire waterway,” said Ms. Boyd, in an affidavit she submitted in opposition to the bridge. She added that the project “would severely and irreparably degrade the Boardman River as a paddling resource, because it would bring noise, air, and water pollution; drive off wildlife; and damage scenic views.”

The highway project also would spread sprawling development across the corridor and push the resulting pollution into the Boardman River, according to David Hyndman, a professor of hydrogeology, and Bryan Pijanowski, a professor of zoology, both of Michigan State University.

The Road to Real Progress
The state wetland law also directs MDEQ to “consider the availability of feasible and prudent alternative locations and methods to accomplish the expected benefits from the project,” even if they entail higher costs or reduced profit. The road commission’s permit application, on the face of it, would seem to fail this test. In its submission, the road commission states that it convened a task force to consider road-and-bridge design alternatives.

“The Task Force preference is to fully bridge the valley wetlands with pre-engineered concrete spans…,” it says. “The road commission has added the $5 million wetland bridging cost to the current project budget and funding request with the understanding that if the enhancement funding is not available, that the project will proceed without the wetland bridging enhancements.”

The law demands a more rigorous effort to protect the environment than that, according to attorneys with expertise in applying the wetland statute. Similarly, the wetland act requires a fair analysis and comparison of alternatives, rather than tilting the playing field to benefit a favored idea. Citizen groups have said all along that the road commission closed its eyes to effective and less-damaging ideas. Now, a transportation professor and planner from suburban Chicago concurs.

“The Grand Traverse County Road Commission did not analyze all feasible and prudent alternatives,” wrote Rick Kuner, president of the Oak Park, IL-based New Alternatives, Inc.  “The Smart Roads proposal has many good elements that the road commission’s regional models do not take into account. However, there are widely accepted models and methodologies that do consider them.”

“The road commission’s evaluation tends to understate the benefits of the Smart Roads proposals,” Mr. Kuner also found.

Citizen groups are calling on the Granholm administration to uphold its stated priorities and values, reject the highway project because of its ecological threat and its failure to consider alternatives, and for the governor to return to Traverse City to dedicate the extension of the nature reserve. One thing is for certain: The administration’s decision will forever grace, or mar, the cherished landscape here.

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and organizer who manages the Institute’s efforts to promote transportation choices and preserve community character across Michigan. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org


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