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Granholm’s Way

A bridge, a valley, and the governor’s new economic vision

October 8, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

AP Photo
  Governor Jennifer Granholm
Whatever your view of Jennifer M. Granholm — and we think that so far she’s doing pretty well — there’s no mistaking that the Democratic governor and her aides have embraced a new approach to building Michigan’s prosperity.

In a sharp departure from the policies of her predecessor, former Republican Governor John Engler, Ms. Granholm earlier this year avoided the reluctant, Republican-dominated state Legislature and worked with local officials to establish a new regional transit agency for southeast Michigan. She then reached agreement with Republicans to delay half of the new road and highway expansion projects they wanted and invest the savings in fixing existing highways first. She argues that this brand new direction in transportation policy — less new concrete, better public transit choices — would help to improve Michigan’s economic competitiveness.

But Ms. Granholm’s most striking view by far is her insistence that the best way to grow Michigan’s economy is to protect its natural beauty and reign in sprawl — the essence of Smart Growth.

A Vision
Ms. Granholm, who swept to victory in 2002 in an election night dominated by Republicans, knew that her big idea needed a thorough public airing to gain political traction. So last February, in her State of the State address, she defined her economic strategy. “We must develop a cooperative, common-sense approach to how we use our land,” she said, “so we can protect our forests and farms, prevent the sprawl that chokes our suburban communities and threatens our water quality, and bring new life to our cities and older suburbs.”

Then the governor invited the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate to join her in appointing the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council and charged it with suggesting steps to put Smart Growth into effect.

In mid-August, the 26-member council delivered its recommendations. Speaking with near unanimity, the council said the state should:

  • Repair and modernize existing roads before building new ones.
  • Protect Michigan’s natural environment as a foundation for economic growth.
  • Direct public spending for roads, sewers, and other construction toward, not away from, cities and towns.

With such strong, bipartisan support, Ms. Granholm can now begin to apply these recommendations to communities statewide. There is no better place to start than Traverse City, where the very same ideas have been intensely debated since 1987, when the Grand Traverse County Road Commission announced it wanted to violate a natural refuge and a superb river by building a new road and bridge through the Boardman River valley south of town.

Peaceful Valley, Fierce Discord
If you hike down a steep bluff, through a muddy and rare white cedar wetland, and then across a field of goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace to where the county proposes to put the bridge, this is what you’ll encounter: A thick, wild forest. A large brown trout swimming in slow circles in the shade of a cedar. A startled whitetail buck leaping from the brush. A strong current carrying swimmers to the towering, opposite bank.

Even at rush hour, as invisible traffic speeds past on nearby roads, the river valley offers an unspoiled melody of bird songs, rustling leaves, and swirling water. Here’s the truly amazing part: This stretch of untamed river with otter, beaver, and black bear living along its banks is three miles from downtown Traverse City. It is at the center, not at the edge, of a growing metropolitan region of 150,000 people. Thousands of bikers, hikers, kayakers, canoeists, cross country skiers, and anglers visit it every year.

It is no surprise that, in a region whose allure is so defined by nature, the road commission’s plan to spend $40 million to ruin the valley with huge amounts of fill dirt, concrete, steel, traffic fumes, and noise generates fierce public discord. The road commission, backed by the regional Chamber of Commerce, asserts that the crossing would alleviate traffic congestion and enhance economic development. Its design, they argue, promises minimal environmental damage. Without it, the commission says, the region will choke on its own traffic and employers and residents will look elsewhere to settle.

Opponents, including the Michigan Land Use Institute, amassed a thick body of scientific, technical, legal, and economic evidence that demonstrates the falsity of the commission’s claims. In fact, opponents have significant evidence that the proposed road would not reduce — and would almost certainly worsen — traffic congestion.

Opponents did their homework. They hired a Chicago traffic engineer to develop an alternative transportation plan, Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region. It proposes expanding an existing bridge across the river and modernizing nearby roads. According to the Institute, Smart Roads is far less damaging, moves traffic more effectively, and would save about $30 million.

A Telltale Choice
MLUI/Gary Howe
  Kayaker John Heiam paddles past the site of the proposed bridge across the Boardman River.
Now the Granholm administration must make a choice between the road commission’s and the opponents’ positions by October 15. That is because the road commission must fill in acres of rare wetlands in order to build the bridge and, to do that, it needs permission from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The significance of the administration’s pending decision cannot be overstated. Locally, the Granholm administration’s choice could end 16 years of public discord that pits the conventional, damaging approach to road building and economic development against a new, environmentally sensitive one that Ms. Granholm has steadfastly embraced.

At the state level, halting this assault on the valley would allow the governor to prove unmistakably that her administration is indeed committed, as she said at her inauguration, to serving the “next generations of the Michigan family who look to us to protect our clean water and the unspoiled open spaces of these spectacular peninsulas.”

Where Politics, Science, and Poetry Meet
The Granholm administration does not have to climb out on a political limb to stop the project. The Traverse City Commission has repeatedly rejected it — most recently in June by a six-to-one margin. In July the vast majority of the nearly 400 residents who overwhelmed a DEQ public hearing at a junior high school auditorium said they strongly opposed the bridge.

The science that argues for denying the wetland permit is even more overwhelming. The Institute and its allies submitted more than 200 pages of expert public testimony focused on exactly what the road commission’s proposal would do to vegetation, wildlife, and water quality within the valley and the gorgeous Grand Traverse Bay that it feeds. Since then, the state DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have vindicated that testimony: Each now publicly opposes the bridge as currently designed because it is unnecessarily destructive; additionally, the DNR also says that law requires that the commission consider a less damaging alternative.

So the administration can feel secure in a considered decision that is consistent with sound science, the economic strategy she campaigned on, and her nobler, often poetically expressed, instincts.

“The question on the table for me, and for all of you, is really: ‘What kind of Michigan do I want my grandchildren to know?’” she asked of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council last March. “Do we want them to know the clear lakes and green forest light of your childhood? The cricket songs and lapping waves and squeaky sandy porches of our summers? The tulips and soft petals of trilliums of our spring? The lake breezes and pine-scented air of our North?

“Or will they only know something else?” the governor continued. “Something concrete and dressed in gray pavement, adorned with strip malls?

“The answer, of course, is that we must protect and preserve this amazing land entrusted to us, which calls our hearts to find a home in Michigan.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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