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Expanding Our Vision

Imagination is key to successful Grand Traverse growth study

December 19, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Officials, businessmen, and environmentalists in Michigan's Grand Traverse region (pictured hered) are searching for a regional strategy that eases traffic congestion while protecting the area's calling card -- its great natural beauty.

TRAVERSE CITY — As 2004 comes to a close, traffic is sure to make the Top 10 list of issues facing the Grand Traverse region — again.

It raises the question: What are residents here going to do? If Traverse City insists on following the conventional route to facilitating galloping growth and the traffic that comes with it, we will have to build roads alongside, over, and through all of our lakes, rivers, forests, and parks. In other words, we would solve the traffic problem by essentially ruining natural beauty, the region’s calling card.

Let’s look at the problem another way. Natural wonders aren’t the roadblock to excellent mobility: Poor vision is.  We need more imagination, more intelligence, more insight — much more — to craft the quality growth strategy this wondrous place deserves.

From Portland, Ore., to central Texas, to Cleveland, to the middle Tennessee region communities have found that the way to break through the impasse on growth and transportation is to engage the public in defining a clear and hopeful vision for the future. This is broadly called “visioning,” and now it’s the Grand Traverse region’s turn to imagine a brighter future and make that future come true.

This is not only a historic opportunity; it is also our responsibility to do this and do it well. All of Michigan and communities in dozens of other states are watching how the Midwest’s fastest growing region is tackling the central civic question of the new century: How to develop in a way that enhances rather than diminishes our area. Though it is hard to fathom, we are a national Smart Growth leader. The Traverse City region, more than almost any other rural area in the country, is purposefully installing the economic, environmental, housing, transportation, and public policy infrastructure to accommodate more people and still yield a cleaner, greener, more prosperous community.

Naturally, there is much more to do. On Wednesday, the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners will take another step to solidify a regional consensus on growth and form a public visioning process. The Ways and Means Committee — which includes all nine county commissioners — will consider the concept at 12:30 p.m. at the Governmental Center, 400 Boardman Ave., in Traverse City.  It’s open to the public. If you come, bring your ideas and your imagination. Your region, your neighbors, your family needs you.

Just Imagine
Presently, the Grand Traverse region’s collective imagining about how to break free of congestion just isn’t getting the job done. After all, when traffic lanes fill up, many motorists and local officials clamor for more lanes. When roads can’t handle any more lanes, people want more roads. It’s a bit like believing that the answer to mounting credit card bills is to increase your debt limit. It might get you through the holidays, but there’s a nightmare looming just up the road.

With transportation, breaking this cycle requires looking beyond one’s own windshield and considering where the region’s going in 10, 20, or 50 years. It requires thinking about the quality of life for our children and their children. Will they thank us for multiplying today’s traffic problems and sprawl by tenfold? No chance.

That’s where a robust imagination comes in. Instead of focusing on moving more cars along more pavement, what if we focus on building a far better community — an extraordinary one, even? Where would that take us?

It’s entirely possible not only to dream, but also to build the region’s sleepy small towns into lively centers where most needs are met with a single car or bus or bicycle trip — or walk — between compact locations. Imagine a place that’s all about its people — young, old, wealthy or working class — having lots of transportation, job, housing, and entertainment choices in order to lead more fulfilling and independent lives. This region can be a place whose air and water grow cleaner every year, with less traffic and noise and light pollution.

From Conflict to Collaboration
The important part is not only what you envision but also whether local government provides an opportunity for citizens to consider the possibilities at all. That’s the basic conclusion of an interesting mix of public and private groups that have been talking since summer about how the region can transcend huge roadblocks on transportation and development issues.

Last summer, the Michigan Land Use Institute and our partner organizations finally convinced county officials that their proposed $55 million Hartman-Hammond bridge and highway across the Boardman River was too expensive, too environmentally damaging, and would make traffic congestion worse, not better. After a 17-year struggle, the project was halted.

Now a better transportation and land use plan is taking shape. Out of the ashes of the Hartman-Hammond bridge project, “pro-bridge” officials from the county and the chamber of commerce sat down with “pro-Boardman River valley” environmental leaders and began a healthy dialogue — not about a project but about a process — for moving forward with a growth strategy for the region.

Their conclusion: It is time to remove regional planning from the grip of the county road commission and put it into the hands of the public. To do so, they suggest creating a 21-member public-private committee to convene citizens in as many creative ways as possible and elicit the public’s vision of better ways to grow and get around. The committee would hire top national — maybe even international — thinkers to help residents and visitors see the possibilities for how and where to grow, what to preserve forever, and how to link it all together with a multifaceted transportation system.

These “conveners” would be appointed by a truly regional body — a three-member panel representing the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners, the multi-government Traverse City — Transportation and Land Use Study (TC-TALUS), and the 10-county Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. And the elected county board would sponsor the whole initiative.

It’s a homegrown proposal for power sharing and new partnerships. It’s primed by $3.3 million in federal funds that the pro-bridge and pro-Boardman forces freed up (from planned studies of a now-dead bypass proposal and then the bridge) by agreeing to put the public’s interest ahead of their own agendas. And it’s meant to be an investment in a vision, followed by real plans and real action.

This coming together of untraditional allies is one more reflection of how Traverse City differs from most other places and can help lead the way for many of them. The proposed land use and transportation study can be the gathering point for citizens to decide how we grow. Just imagine the possibilities.

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and transportation policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. His work helped to replace proposed bypasses in Petoskey and Traverse City with more environmentally- and community-sensitive transportation plans. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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