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Special Report: Transportation Project

Social Consequences of roads

August 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

When Nancy Miller was a girl in the late 1940s, she rode her bicycle on the new four-lane US-27 from her grandparents house in Dewitt to her family's farm southeast of St. Johns in Clinton County.

In 1958, the local newspaper published Mrs. Miller's wedding picture and the announcement that the state would extend the four-lane US-27 expressway from St. Johns north through Gratiot County.

Then in 1992, bulldozers tore into her family's farmhouse to make way for the new $102 million, 21-mile US-27 bypass.

Just as the building of new highways has framed important moments in Mrs. Miller's life, the enormous shift of public investment to road-building was decisive in shaping the lives of every resident of St. Johns and the surrounding area in south central Michigan.

It ended the city's rail passenger service, weakened the historic downtown, produced great lines of weekend traffic, and encouraged the construction of sprawling shopping centers, including one of the state's first Wal-Marts.

Now, St. Johns is undergoing another transition since the US-27 bypass opened last year. The highway alleviated weekend traffic jams for now, but also prompted land speculation and economic dislocation. A new Meijer superstore is planned on a soybean field near a highway exit. Meanwhile, the existing malls along old US-27 are emptying, leaving behind dark storefronts.

"I'm kind of nervous about the Meijer's going in along the new highway," said Mrs. Miller, now 63. "I get afraid that we're going to have so much sprawl and everything will change right before our eyes."

Small City Takes on Big Problems
When the state started construction on the US-27 bypass six years ago, leaders in St. Johns got together and initiated an investment and land use plan to strengthen its center. They spent more than $92 million in city, county, and private funds for a handsome new courthouse on the central square, new neighborhood schools that children can walk to, a new library, a modernized hospital, and a senior center. The city also is preparing to remodel the downtown railroad depot into office space for civic groups.

St. Johns changed its zoning code to encourage apartments above storefronts to increase the residential population in its central business district. And it is helping finance historic preservation of downtown buildings.

"The community discovered that downtown mattered to them," said Randy Humphrey, the city manager since 1976. "Somehow, though, our transportation planning has to be joined to land use planning. It's too much to ask one little city to solve these complex problems on its own."

CONTACT: Randy Humphrey, 517-224-8944. ~K.S.

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