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Moving Cars? Or Moving People?

What is the value of new roads?

August 4, 1996 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

As the Grand Traverse region looks toward the next century, there are serious questions about how it will accommodate escalating population growth. One sure sign of an increasing population is more cars piling up on the roads. The traditional problem: how to move these cars as efficiently as possible. The conventional answer: build more roads.

In the Traverse City region, the conventional response is now taking the shape of a proposed $250 million bypass. There’s little question that if it were ever built, the bypass would offer relief for traffic congestion -- perhaps for even a few years. But the lesson from virtually every other region where bypasses have been built is that the relief is short-lived and the enduring costs are huge. Why? Bypasses literally provide the framework for sprawl.

Northwest Michigan is fortunate in that evironmental organizations, some members of the business community and local government are now actively seeking alternatives. In Petoskey, farmers and township officials are battling a plan for bypassing downtown with a road through some of Emmet County’s most beautiful farm land. Opponents of the bypass have proposed to use some of the construction money to repair existing roadways and other measures to increase mobility.

Here in Traverse City, New Designs For Growth, a regional planning project sponsored by the Traverse Area Chamber of Commerce, has held several meetings to convince officials of the county road commission that more public involvement in road planning is a necessity before additional engineering is completed. An alliance of residents and environmental groups calling itself the Coalition For Sensible Growth, is promoting an alternative to the construction of a new bridge over the Boardman River which would serve as a key link in the proposed bypass. The Elk Rapids Village Council voted in June to oppose the bypass.

The Michigan Land Use Institute is involved in discussions with these groups and others about adopting a new approach to transportation. As a research and public policy organization, the Institute has tapped into a national network of communities that have effectively dealt with growth without laying down more concrete. We discovered that there are several solutions that could work well for the Traverse City area if they were modified to the region’s specific needs. The point is that the proposed bypass represents a view of transportation planning that more readily fits 1950, not 2050.

The most common feature among the alternative plans now underway in other communities is their focus not on moving cars but on improving land use as a central issue of transportation planning. One of the most promising ideas is "Transit Oriented Development" (TOD), a term coined on the West Coast to describe neighborhoods that are small in nature, contain a variety of uses (residential, retail and services), and are centered around a regional transportation system. Neighborhoods of this kind encourage walking, biking and mass transit as feasible alternatives to the automobile.

It is easy to see how Traverse City and its surrounding communities could adopt this model since the region is just beginning its sprawling development pattern.

Several other cities and towns throughout the nation have established "Urban Growth Boundaries." These boundaries draw a clear line between town and countryside and focus development in sensible, harmonious patterns. A fine example of the success of this approach is Portland, Oregon, which now is considered one of the most livable and economically vibrant cities in America.

The Michigan Land Use Institute has identified the following towns — Portland, Oregon; Middleburg, Virginia, Cathedral City, California, and The Oregon Department of Transportation had proposed a bypass to accommodate growth and traffic congestion in Portland. In collaboration with Calthorpe Associates and several other organizations, 1000 Friends of Oregon produced an alternative plan that is ongoing. The plan makes the connection between transportation and air quality, thereby tapping into available Federal funds from the Clean Air Act. The LUTRAQ plan is based on concentrating growth around compact neighborhood-style development that takes advantage of mass transit as a central means of transportation. In doing so, Portland can avoid construction of a $1 billion freeway system that had become a political issue during the 1992 election. Three years later, the Oregon Department of Transportation released its Major Impact Survey clearly showing that the LUTRAQ alternative was equal to or superior than the freeway proposal in almost every measure. Now everyone, including the Department of Transportation has recommended against the bypass and for LUTRAQ.

Middleburg, Virginia lies along Route 50 that connects suburban northern Virginia and Washington, DC. As a result, commuter traffic through the downtown was seen as a major problem, to which a $32 million bypass was the proposed solution. A coalition of citizens concerned about the economic effects of a bypass on Middleburg’s business center sought an alternative. Ian Lockwood was hired in as a consultant to bring to the community new ideas about reducing congestion through ‘traffic calming.’ Traffic calming uses physical and visual clues to slow traffic through town and encourage pedestrian activity. Rather than simply rerouting cars, calming works by encouraging people to use their cars less.

After community discussion on these calming techniques, a week-long series of workshops was sponsored which were the basis for a community-designed plan. An all-volunteer coalition was able to raise almost $50,000. A $10,000 grant was received from the Prince Charities Trust and another $10,000 grant was given locally as a matching grant to private contributions. The plan is close to completion. With strong support from the Mayor, the Virginia Department of Transportation agreed to put the bypass proposal on hold until the alternative plan had been considered. While the use of traffic calming alone may not offer a feasible solution, it is certainly a far less expensive alternative than building a bypass.

California State Highway 111 runs through downtown Cathedral City. As the highway was widened outside the city, standard strip development occurred and most of the old downtown shops became boarded up. Michael Freedman of Freedman, Tung & Bottomley in San Francisco was hired to work with the local government and a 30-member task force to revitalize the downtown.

The approach that Freedman and the city took was to redesign traffic management on the existing highway. Mr. Freedman suggested turning the highway into a handsome boulevard with free-flowing, through traffic in the center, local traffic and parking buffering the sidewalks, and shops that line the street. Street trees and seating areas complete the look of the boulevard. The plan is called an ‘adaptable boulevard’ because it can easily accommodate the transition to other transit forms like bus or rail with little modification. The plan was given the go ahead in June, 1995 when Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill that gives Cathedral City control of the State Highway within the city limits.

Many of these studies and plans have found federal support under legislation known as ISTEA, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. ISTEA recognizes that a new outlook on transportation is needed; an outlook that includes community involvement, regional coordination of planning, and alternative and accessible modes of transportation.

In the Maryland suburbs of Washington, US 301 is a heavily congested route. In the mid-1980’s the state Department of Transportation proposed an Outer Beltway to relieve the congestion. Public opposition to the concept was immediate. The Maryland Department of Transportation responded by embarking on a study of alternatives. The department formed a 76-member task force to assess alternative strategies emphasizing a mix of travel modes and transportation improvements. The study, completed in May 1996, called for improvements to the existing corridor including expanding U.S. 301 by two lanes and reserving options for future rail transit. Other recommendations included focusing new development in planned communities in compact regional centers (TODs). The study also looked at increasing parking fees and establishing tolls to discourage traffic. For the time being, the Outer Beltway plan has been put on the shelf.

The Illinois Department of Transportation and the state Toll Highway Authority have proposed several extensions of the existing tollway system into the northwestern suburbs of Chicago. The new roads are designed to form a second bypass to the downtown area. A coalition of business, environmental, and civic groups, calling themselves Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission, have outlined a Citizen Transportation Plan that includes: a regional competitive transit initiative, transit oriented development, walkable communities, a bicycle network, auto travel reduction and an intermodal freight initiative. The Environmental Law and Policy Center, which is coordinating the coalition, may take legal action against the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Tollway Authority on the grounds that the Environmental Impact Statement was inadequately prepared.

The question facing these communities and the entire state of Michigan is what is the best use of public funds? Michigan alone has over $9 billion worth of road repairs and improvements awaiting action. The option of building a bypass in Traverse City may not be an affordable one.

Without proper land use planning, there is no way for a community to decide how and where it wants to grow. Finding workable alternatives to the "more roads" model for managing a region’s transportation needs means going beyond the question of how to move cars as fast as possible. A solution to the problem comes from changing the question altogether. It then becomes: How can we strengthen communities, and protect our region’s natural beauty, while enabling people to get where they want to go as quickly as possible?

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