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Road Weary

A transportation challenge in Traverse City, Michigan

June 1, 1996 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

One of the more telling character traits of Traverse City area residents is their distaste for new roads. Yet even as small town life is being defended, a growing population is bringing to the region tens of thousands of new vehicles.

For years, this impending collision of politics and demographics has been a mainstay of civic conversation. Suddenly it has taken on new urgency.

A tight-money era has unfolded in Lansing and in Washington. The billions of dollars that the state and the Federal government used to put into solving congestion by laying down new pavement are no longer so readily available. Simply put, Traverse City will not have nearly the opportunity it once did to take the conventional approach and build its way out of traffic jams.

Yet where some see crisis, others see opportunity. The new economic realities means that well-conceived alternatives are sure to be more respectfully received than they have been previously.

Even as they are listening to new ideas, transportation engineers are scrambling to defend favorite projects before the money fades away.. At the top of their priority list is a 20-mile, $100 million-plus beltway around Traverse City planned for the early 21st century. It would start near Omena in Leelanau County and loop around to M-72 in Acme Township. Also planned are new feeder routes, like the Bugai Road extension, which is designed to relieve congestion on route 22. A.$20 million east-west corridor, which includes a new $2 million bridge across the Boardman River, also is proposed.

Others are asking, Is this the best use of a shrinking budget? Some of the money might be better spent reducing the need to use a car. In Northwest Michigan, the solution is tied to encouraging development patterns that focus growth in and around existing villages.

Although intrinsically difficult, developing an alternative transportation plan is not impossible. One planning model under study was developed by 1,000 Friends of Oregon, a land use advocacy group in Portland. By arguing that the social and environmental damage from $1 billion in proposed new roads was too high, the Portland-based group coaxed transportation agencies to support a project aimed at making it much more convenient for commuters to get out of their cars.

Using computer models, the group established a network of urban villages linked by bike paths and mass transit. By showing that the new development pattern reduced automobile traffic on key roadways, the study made it clear that new highway construction could be avoided indefinitely. Sufficiently convinced, officials called off the building program.

Some of the ideas proposed in Portland are not applicable yet in Traverse City. Transportation engineers say that Northwest Michigan’s population, for instance, is too small and dispersed to support light rail.

But the idea of establishing new patterns of development that encourage home and business construction close to villages merits close attention. By concentrating population growth, public transit becomes more of an option. As the region grows, the time may not be far off for Suttons Bay, Lake Ann, Leland, and Acme to establish commuter stations for regular express buses to Traverse City.

Is such an idea too fanciful? Not if the costs for not trying a new approach are fully considered.

Just look at the proposal for a new bridge over the Boardman. Engineers argue it is needed because South Airport Road, less than two miles downstream, now carries 35,000 cars a day. That number is expected to double within 15 years, well past capacity. Without the new bridge, say its proponents, traffic could come to a standstill on main thoroughfares, and commuters will speed down neighborhood streets where they don’t belong.

Residents who live near the river, though, ,make an equally good point. They say the plan lacks imagination and foresight. The new bridge would cut in half one of the country’s nicest woodland parks, a river front wild area of forests, wetlands, and winding trails. A better idea, they say, is to rebuild the existing one-lane Cass Road Bridge, which crosses a dam about one mile north of the proposed site for the new bridge.

That such a debate is now taking shape in Traverse City is a measure of the value residents hold for the Boardman River, a unique natural treasure that will only become more precious.

Equally important, both sides seem to agree that doing nothing is not an alternative. Northwest Michigan residents understand that traffic is a looming problem. They have said so countless times in community meetings and letters to the Record Eagle. Allowing congestion to steadily grow worse will only put enormous pressure on political leaders to act in a rush, a condition which invariably leads to the wrong answer.

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