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$90 Million Highway Ditched in Petoskey

Up next for citizen-led campaign: less expensive, more sensible transportation program

September 26, 2002 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Patrick Owen, MLUI
  Calling Petoskey "the most beautiful spot in Michigan," the director of the Michigan Department of Transportation on September 23 announced the agency would not build a 10-mile bypass through countryside around the city.

Petoskey, MI - It's over after 15 years. And it's only just begun.

With both stunning finality and a promise to finance a much less costly and damaging citizen-initiated transportation plan, the Michigan Department of Transportation this week formally canceled its nearly generation-old effort to build a $90 million bypass in Petoskey.

But in ending its campaign to build the four-lane highway through farm fields and forests that surround this Lake Michigan coastal city, the state Transportation Department on September 23 also issued a unique challenge to citizens and local governments that has broad ramifications for other Michigan cities.

Transportation Department officials promised to pay for, but not lead, a locally-crafted transportation plan that protects Petoskey's nationally historic downtown and the active farmland in neighboring townships. In addition, MDOT pledged to upgrade the turn lanes, traffic signals, and intersections along the state's aging U.S. 31, as citizens and local officials initially proposed.

In effect, the state Department of Transportation is turning the transportation planning process over to local citizens and governments, and relegating itself to a technical assistance and financing role.

It is the first time that the state agency has made such a decision to support a locally-developed transportation and land use plan in northern Michigan. The commitment to an alternative transportation plan, said the agency's top officials, highlights how deeply citizen concerns about the role that new highways play in encouraging sprawl, traffic congestion, and farmland loss have penetrated the state highway agency.

A Public Interest Breakthrough
Township officials, and hundreds of Petoskey area farmers and residents worked for nearly a generation to convince the state to abandon its one-size-fits-all bypass proposal to move vehicles, and to embrace a plan that is more sensitive to the needs of people and their community.

In announcing the decision to an audience of 150 residents, Greg Rosine, the director of the State Transportation Department, acknowledged the persistence and influence of the bypass opponents in this region.

Flanked by more than a dozen colleagues, Mr. Rosine called Petoskey "the most beautiful spot in Michigan," and added, "In the absence of a local consensus for a bypass around Petoskey, the Michigan Department of Transportation will recommend a 'no-build' alternative." Many of those in attendance cheered at the announcement. Bypass supporters, meanwhile, immediately began filing out, startled by the department's reversal after years of insistence that the 10-mile long bypass must be built.

Several township officials quickly praised the decision. "I think it's a great win for local people who clearly said they didn't support a four-lane highway," said Denny Keiser, the supervisor of Bear Creek Township, who's opposed the bypass for a decade as an elected trustee.

"If MDOT would have started with local ideas back in 1987, maybe we'd have a solution in place today," Mr. Keiser added.

Even some of the most influential bypass supporters said they were relieved.

Kate Marshall, Petoskey's mayor, told the Petoskey News-Review that local efforts could bring about the best possible solution to traffic congestion. "We certainly applaud all that MDOT has put into this over the years and their willingness to continue providing help to the local officials," she said.

15 Years in the Making
The dispute over the Petoskey Bypass began in 1987 when, at the urging of former Representative Bob Davis, Congress authorized $28 million for planning and construction. The state first considered a route within the city, and later two roughly parallel routes for a 4-lane highway with a wide median through rural Bear Creek and Resort Townships.

From west to east, the bypass would have begun near the Bay Harbor development on U.S. 31, crossed farmland and rolling hills in the two townships, and reconnected with U.S. 31 near M-119. The Petoskey Area Chamber of Commerce helped spur the Congressional funding and remained a strong supporter of the bypass to the end.

Many city and township residents joined grassroots groups to counter the plan and advocate for improvements to existing state and local roads. Among the leaders were Debbie and John Rohe who founded Sensible Alternatives for a Valued Environment (SAVE) in 1987, the same year the bypass was proposed.

"It's a privilege to live in an area where people care so much about the land and preserving a sense of community," said Mr. Rohe after the state transportation agency's decision.

Bypass opponents were convinced that Petoskey's tourist-based economy would not benefit from a highway designed to allow traffic to pass through the region without stopping. Residents asserted that a bypass also would weaken the downtown, a national historic landmark with a mix of boutique and pedestrian shops, broad sidewalks, and a lively central park. And they feared the bypass would let loose waves of sprawl across the rural townships where the agricultural economy still thrives.

Their message attracted a growing circle of urban and rural supporters, and prompted the Michigan Land Use Institute, an advocacy organization in Beulah, and the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center of the Midwest to add their organizing, communications, and legal expertise to the campaign.

"Smart Roads Petoskey" an Effective Alternative
The two organizations formally evaluated the technical and legal shortcomings of the bypass plan and hired New Alternatives, Inc. a Chicago-based transportation planning firm, to help develop a technically-competent alternative. Called "Smart Roads Petoskey," it offered a workable plan to modernize local roads in order to respond to the region's growing traffic.

"Smart Roads," was completed in 2000, proposed to spend $7 million to $10 million to link existing local roads, modernize U.S. 31, and develop a truck route to avoid downtown.

In 2001, Resort Township called for the state to study "Smart Roads: Petoskey" and then formally rejected the state's proposed bypass routes earlier this year. "Smart Roads" is now considered the leading template for developing the region's new citizen-led transportation plan.

Citizens and local governments also attracted the support of federal Representative Bart Stupak, a Democrat, who succeeded Congressman Davis. Rep. Stupak convinced his congressional colleagues in 1996 to approve a measure to allow the original $28 million in federal funding to be used to study local roads.

That same pool of money is available for the new citizen-led transportation plan and for construction.

In recent years, national organizations also have joined the opposition campaign. In 1996, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Petoskey one of the 10 most endangered places in the country because of the threat to its quality of life posed by the bypass and sprawl. In 1999, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Friends of the Earth, both based in the nation's capital, cited the bypass's potential for weakening the downtown and triggering sprawl in naming it one of the nation's 50 worst road projects in a report titled "Road to Ruin."

"Experience throughout the Midwest demonstrates that highway bypasses such as the one abandoned by MDOT lead to sprawl, increased congestion, and the elimination of open space," said Shannon Fisk, a staff attorney at Environmental Law and Policy Center. "Now local citizens have a unique opportunity to develop a solution that will improve the current transportation system while preserving the environment and the Petoskey area's high quality of life."

State Transition and Concession
The state Transportation Department's decision to allow citizens and local governments to design a transportation plan is a historic shift. In ending its $90 million highway proposal, the department has conceded that a bypass is not always a cure for a community's congestion.

Moreover, the Petoskey experience is sure to embolden other regions challenged by new highway bypass proposals. For instance, residents in Grand Haven, a west Michigan city, are debating the merits of a $1 billion, 30-mile bypass through the state's most productive agricultural land.

Ironically, both the federal and state transportation agencies have periodically expressed doubts that the Petoskey Bypass would ultimately succeed.

In February 1988, a state transportation project manager wrote a memorandum to his manager about public opposition that he encountered at the first-ever public meeting on the bypass. The planner predicted, "The study, with current public sentiment, will definitely take more than two years simply because of public involvement."

And the Federal Highway Administration, a partner with the state on the bypass, said this week that many factors led to the plan's demise, including the modest traffic relief it would have delivered. "Both bypass routes would have attracted about 18%-20% of the traffic from U.S. 31," said Jim Kirschensteiner, assistant division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration's office in Michigan. "In our discussions this past summer, we asked ourselves, 'Is that really enough?'"

Kelly Thayer, a journalist, directs the Institute's transportation policy program. Reach him at Kelly@mlui.org

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