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Successful Bypass Foes Get Busy Again

Petoskey citizens, officials eye federal funds for smart traffic planning

September 1, 2005 | By Rob Wooley
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen

To better handle growing traffic congestion, citizens and officials in the Petoskey area will soon begin studying alternatives to building a bypass

PETOSKEY — Almost three years after they convinced the state to abandon plans to build a bypass around this small Up North city, many area residents and government officials say that they are eager for the arrival of federal funds that will launch a long-delayed, locally led study that will identify better ways to reduce their area’s thick traffic congestion.

Funding for the study was first announced by the Michigan Department of Transportation on the day it cancelled the $90 million bypass. That September 2002 decision, which came after a 15-year battle with local residents, included a promise by MDOT to underwrite, but not lead, a search for an alternative way to handle the traffic that often clogs U.S. 31 on its way through this still-quaint, northwest Lower Michigan town. But Congressional delays put federal dollars for the study on hold for over two years, until lawmakers broke their logjam and enacted a huge, $286 billion, national transportation bill on July 29.

As some residents and leaders from Petoskey and Resort and Bear Creek Townships prepare to work on the bypass alternative study, the region’s Congressman, Bart Stupak (D-Menominee), issued a statement supporting their intention to manage traffic in their community without paving over more working farmland, triggering more sprawling development patterns, or harming established downtown businesses here. Representative Stupak, who redirected federal money from the bypass to local road improvement projects, said he was sending a clear message by earmarking funds for the local transportation needs study.

“We put this in the bill mainly because we are trying to get away from the idea of building a bypass in Petoskey,” Mr. Stupak said. “There has to be a way to ease traffic without building one. I’d like to see Petoskey keep its unique character and grow in a smart way.”

Halting MDOT’s proposal marked a turning point in this rapidly growing region’s struggle to manage development. Some of the same bypass opponents went on to stop several “big box” retail proposals that they said would accelerate sprawl. Since then, other citizen groups have stopped similar projects, including a highway proposed for a wild river valley south of Traverse Citywhich, as in Petoskey, is being replaced by a community-based transportation study — and a Wal-Mart store proposed for the edge of Charlevoix. Now as Petoskey-area residents work out a transportation plan that is theirs, not the state’s, they can refer to previous research on bypass alternatives, including one commissioned by a citizens group and published by the Michigan Land Use Institute.

Promises to Keep
“We’ve been waiting for over two years,” said Dr. Hal Willens, a cardiologist at Northern Michigan Hospital who has lived in Petoskey for 20 years. “Now we have an opportunity to reconsider alternatives, and to study and research additional alternatives that will provide a win-win solution for everyone in the region.”

Dr. Willens’ eagerness echoes the intense enthusiasm that greeted MDOT’s 2002 bypass cancellation and study-funding announcement. A few months later, in 2003, citizens and government officials from the city and the two townships began working with the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments on a formal request for the planning funds. They drafted a scope-of-work proposal, submitted it to MDOT, and hired a transportation planning consultant to manage the process.

Soon after that, however, Congress stalled on the massive national transportation bill, where MDOT planned to find funding for the study, throwing it into suspended animation. But at least one local official said the long wait has not reduced enthusiasm.

“Now that the federal bill has passed, people are really excited about moving forward with this process,” said Megan Olds, the Regional Planning Coordinator for the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. “There is still a lot of interest.”

If anything, some observers say, area citizens are once again speaking out, keeping a close eye on other recent, growth-related developments, and looking forward to reigniting the discussion on alternatives to the bypass.

“In the past, we were offered only one answer to all transportation issues: More roads,” said John Rohe, a Petoskey attorney who founded Sensible Alternatives for a Valued Environment in 1987, the year the bypass was first proposed. The group played a leading role in stopping the bypass plan: “We resembled the carpenter with only a hammer; everything looked like a nail. It is a privilege to see the state and federal government willing to offer more than a one-brand-fits-all answer to transportation questions.”

Considering Alternatives
When the funds finally do arrive, Ms. Olds said, the Council of Governments will submit an official contract to the Corradino Group, the Kentucky-based consulting firm that will manage the study. The firm is nationally known for its work on major transportation projects, such as Florida’s Miami-Dade Metrorail system. The group has an office in Southfield, Mich., and specializes in traffic modeling and surveying as well as traffic system and operation design.

Participants in the study may well begin by dusting off various bypass alternatives that have been dormant for years. One such alternative is Smart Roads: Petoskey, a comprehensive plan published by the Institute that calls for upgrading state, county, and municipal roads by expanding intersections, adding turn lanes, and computerizing traffic lights. Popular among citizen groups and neighborhood associations, Smart Roads aims to solve congestion by modernizing U.S. 31, developing a new express route linking local roads, and creating a new truck route that avoids downtown Petoskey and Bay View. 

The strength of Smart Roads, many argue, is that it relieves congestion by spreading traffic more evenly across modernized, existing roads.

“In an effort to offer an alternative to the proposed bypass, we developed many suggestions to improve the flow of traffic in, through, and around Petoskey,” said Bill Petzold, who lives just north of town. “Some of our suggestions included improving existing intersections, modernizing and synchronizing traffic lights, and extending certain two-lane roads. Hopefully the community is now in the position to seriously consider and implement many of their suggestions.”

What’s Next
Meanwhile, state and local transportation officials are combing through the 900-page federal transportation bill to discover exactly how it affects them. MDOT officials will determine both when and how much federal money it will award to the citizen group.

“MDOT has not given the Council of Governments an indication as to a specific date, but our hope is by October 1, the beginning of the State’s fiscal year,” said Ms. Olds.

One MDOT official estimates that the agency will spend approximately $1 million over the next five years, the life of the new federal bill, in the Petoskey area and that approximately $100,000 will flow to the transportation needs study. The agency expects municipal and township governments to provide matching funds for that process; the remaining $900,000 will finance new turn lanes, better intersections, some highway widening, and other upgrades.

“With this money there will now be an opportunity for local governments to look at what they can do with the local road system to provide better movement and flow,” said Tom Raymond, project planning supervisor for MDOT’s Bureau of Transportation Planning. “Now that we (MDOT) will no longer be involved, the idea is to get the local units together to come up with their own recommendations. These funds will help them do that.”

Rob Wooley is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Harbor Springs-based Smart Growth policy specialist. Reach him at rob@mlui.org.

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