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Road Commission: Boardman Bridge Could Be in Deep Trouble

Officials scramble to salvage millions in transportation funds

January 29, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Grand Traverse County Road Commision
  As various regulatory agencies continue opposing the Hartman-Hammond project, federal transportation dollars for Grand Traverse County are in increasing jeopardy.

TRAVERSE CITY — For the first time, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission this week acknowledged that its repeated failure to gain state and federal approval for building a massive bridge and highway through the magnificent Boardman River valley may have pushed the project to the brink of collapse. Local officials in charge of the controversial 16-year-old project are now rushing to salvage tens of millions of dollars that could go down the drain with the proposal, known as the Hartman-Hammond project, unless fast action redirects the funds to solving Grand Traverse County’s growing traffic congestion in other ways.

“We’re not going to continue to battle for this thing if the odds are stacked against us,” said Walter “Jay” Hooper, chairman of the county road agency’s board of commissioners, in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “I don’t think we’ll fight this thing to our graves. I think the key is, if we’re not going to do this project, then let’s keep the money in the county.”

The proposed project, which would be built just south of Traverse City, would widen Hartman Road to four lanes. It would also widen the west end of Hammond Road to five lanes and link the two roads with about 1,200 feet of road, bridge, and fill material that would bisect and bury lush wetlands and public parkland in the Boardman River valley. The proposal also would expand Three Mile Road, on the east end of the project, to four and five lanes.

The road commission’s next regular meeting is Wednesday in Traverse City, where Mr. Hooper said he expects the project’s fate and funding to be front and center.

Changes in Funding Scenarios Spark Sudden U-Turn
Mr. Hooper’s comments mark a complete U-turn for his agency. They reflect the weight of accumulating evidence that the $42.5 million proposal would cost far too much, produce needless environmental damage, and not attain what the county road commission has long claimed it would: Congestion relief in and around Traverse City. Mr. Hooper’s remarks also closely follow a flurry of events challenging his road commission manager’s recent public statements that funding and project approvals are forthcoming and that other alternatives are not feasible.

One of those challenges comes from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which quietly revealed in a meeting with local officials last week that it would pay the majority of the cost to redesign and rebuild the county’s Cass Road bridge if the county approves removing the leaky dam underpinning the structure. The bridge on Cass Road, which spans the Boardman River near the proposed Hartman-Hammond crossing, is a key facet of a citizen-advanced transportation alternative called Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region.

The swift turn in the fate of the Hartman-Hammond project began last Friday when Road Commission Manager Mike Dillenbeck told approximately 200 people attending a gathering of the Economic Club of Traverse City that the controversial highway plan was proceeding smoothly. “There’s never been a problem with funding for this project,” Mr. Dillenbeck told the meeting packed with local government officials and business and legal executives.

But Mr. Dillenbeck’s statements were directly contradicted by this reporter, who is a transportation policy analyst for the Michigan Land Use Institute and was invited to the meeting to debate Mr. Dillenbeck over the need for the Hartman-Hammond project. I explained that the project has encountered strong objections from state and federal environmental agencies and then added that, in the Institute's opinion, those agencies were unlikely to ever change their minds. I also pointed out that the project’s cost has soared almost 65 percent since 2001, and that $16 million in state funds meant for the bridge and $18 million in federal funds being sought for it could be forfeited unless officials acted immediately to redirect it for other purposes.

Delay Endangers Federal Funds for Local Projects
During the debate I also revealed that a spokesman for U.S. Representative David Camp, a Republican from Midland who represents Grand Traverse County, told me that Mr. Camp is deeply concerned that the road commission’s failure to win required state and federal approvals for the bridge leaves the project essentially unfundable. Sage Eastman, Mr. Camp’s spokesman said: “I don’t think anyone out there needs us to say there have been setbacks with Hartman-Hammond. The bottom line is we have a deadline looming and no plan approved by the state.”

Mr. Camp faces a February 29 Congressional deadline for legislation that will determine all federal financing of highway projects in the United States through 2009. A potential solution, Mr. Eastman agreed, is securing the $18 million for the general purpose of relieving regional congestion. But he called that approach “not customary” and a difficult sell in Congress.

However, there is a recent precedent in northern Michigan. In 1996, U.S. Representative Bart Stupak, a Democrat, changed the law to make federal funds meant for a state highway bypass around Petoskey also available for local roads in the area. In 2002, when citizens convinced the state to scuttle the bypass, the community remained eligible to use such money to design an alternative approach for solving that region’s traffic problems.

Mr. Eastman also told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that in order for Representative Camp to pursue a similarly unconventional funding method, the Congressman must hear immediately from road commission and county commission officials that the priority is no longer the bridge project but, instead, somehow securing funds for a different approach to traffic congestion relief.

Whether local officials can make that transition quickly enough is unclear, but there were some signs of movement in that direction among other county officials interviewed this week. “What we’ll do is get some information and make the best decision we can,” said Peter Strom, chair of the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners, who expressed surprise when told of the risk to federal funding for the county’s transportation needs. “That might mean going against the Hartman-Hammond, but I don’t know yet.”

County Administrator Dennis Aloia agreed: “We have to concentrate our efforts on practical solutions and if Hartman-Hammond turns out not to be practical, we need to know that now.”

The Long and Bumpy Road
The road commission’s proposal began encountering serious resistance from federal and state agencies almost seven months ago. Since July 2003 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have objected to the road commission’s application to fill wetlands, degrade wildlife habitat, and bury the headwaters of a prized trout stream.

In October, the road commission withdrew its application, prompting the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which is charged with issuing the wetland permit necessary for building the bridge, to instead issue a written rebuke. The state DEQ warned the commission that poor project design and possible glaring inaccuracies in its $1 million environmental study “undermined” the process of selecting the best plan with the least impacts.

In November, the road commission polished its road-and-bridge plan and resubmitted it to the state DEQ and EPA. Then in December the EPA again strongly rebuffed the road commission, which responded by withdrawing the project from further consideration. Officially, the county road agency is now seeking “guidance” from the EPA and the state. A guidance letter from the state DEQ is expected in February.

Five years ago the Institute and the Coalition for Sensible Growth, a local citizens group opposed to the project, hosted public meetings, gathered the ideas of local residents, and published the results in an alternative transportation plan, Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region, which has since gained wide support in the region. Smart Roads would fix the existing Cass Road bridge, widen the Beitner-Keystone corridor, redesign congested South Airport Road, enhance public transit, and modernize regional land use planning.

But the road commission never presented Smart Roads to state and federal road and environmental agencies for full consideration, eventually drawing criticism from the state DEQ, which requires permit applicants to consider other feasible alternatives to filling in wetlands. Now, Smart Roads could receive a big boost if the county dumps its proposed project and accepts the cost-sharing offer from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for refurbishing the Cass Road bridge. That’s because Smart Roads, among other things, relies on restoring that bridge to its original two lanes.

A New Opportunity
In an interview this week Bill Roberts, the spokesman for the Army Corps’ Detroit District Headquarters, said if Grand Traverse County requests that the corps remove the leaking dam beneath the Cass Road bridge, his agency’s policies allow for paying for all necessary design work and 65 percent of construction costs for replacing the old structure.

Ken Smith, executive director of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, and a leader in the struggle to halt the Hartman-Hammond bridge, said the rapid series of events this week presented a fresh opportunity for the area.

“Let’s go back to the drawing board, hire the best transportation planners in the country, and develop the best transportation plan for the region — one that protects the environment and our community character and helps people with cars and those without them,” said Mr. Smith, who helped craft Smart Roads and has opposed the Hartman-Hammond project since its birth in 1987. “We must stay away from the Boardman River, stay away from wetlands, draw a line on sprawl, and improve existing roads and infrastructure, starting with South Airport Road.” 

Kelly Thayer, a journalist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Northwest Michigan Transportation and Land Use Project. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org

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