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No, No, No, No, No Again

Fifth bridge rejection should redirect funding to better traffic solutions

December 10, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe
  Yesterday’s official denial by two federal agencies should convince the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to finally pull up stakes on its Hartman-Hammond bridge proposal, which threatens the Boardman River valley.

Since 1987, when the Grand Traverse County Road Commission first announced that it wanted to build a new highway and bridge through the lovely Boardman River valley south of Traverse City, it has met significant public resistance at almost every turn.

Voters rejected the idea that same year because of its cost, and hundreds of citizens have battled the proposal ever since. Technical specialists dug through the road commission’s own documents and discovered in the late 1990s that the project would do nothing to relieve traffic congestion in the Grand Traverse region and could instead make it worse. And since last summer every federal and state environmental agency that studied the idea has formally objected because of the damage the new road and bridge would cause to a clean river and superb natural area at the heart of a growing metropolitan region.

A Ruling That Should Shake County Leaders
Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service objected yet again. Although it is the fifth time in as many months that state and federal agencies have officially criticized the proposed $42.5 million highway and bridge, the EPA ruling is more than just another denial. In effect, the EPA letter confirms that building a new Boardman River crossing is no longer financially or legally possible.

The ruling should serve as the seismic jolt that finally shakes up the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners and its road commission enough that they come to their senses and bury the proposed bridge for good. If this does not happen, it will put the entire region at risk of losing perhaps $34 million in federal and state transportation dollars that could truly solve traffic congestion problems with techniques that respect the natural landscape and small town character that make the Grand Traverse region so extraordinary.

Yesterday’s rejection is so important because the state Department of Environmental Quality, which also opposes the bridge and which is charged with issuing what amounts to the construction permit, says it will not do so without EPA approval. In fact, the DEQ informed the road commission in a letter in October that, before any approval is possible, it must first do something it has refused to do for many years: thoroughly assess the effectiveness of Smart Roads Grand Traverse Region, an alternative transportation plan advanced by the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Coalition for Sensible Growth, a citizens group. Smart Roads asserts that enlarging and modernizing an existing bridge that crosses the Boardman River at the Cass Road dam, less than a mile south of the proposed site, is an efficient alternative that is much less expensive and much more sensitive to the environment.

What Next? A More Sensible, Sensitive Road Plan
The road commission, no doubt, is busy today trying to figure out what to do next. It has three basic options, though only one is in the public’s interest:

1. The road commission could redesign the bridge to entirely span the Boardman River at a cost likely to fall between $50 million and $100 million. Such an expensive bridge would likely require a new local sales or property tax.

2. It could stick to its current design and file administrative and court actions to prompt state and federal agencies to reverse their positions. That would add years and more costs to a troubled project that has already consumed nearly two decades and roughly $4 million in taxpayer funds. It is most likely that such appeals would eventually fail. 

3. It could abandon the proposed bridge and work with citizens and local, state, and federal officials to secure the funds and develop a regional transportation plan that truly fits the character, quality, and economy of the Grand Traverse region in the 21st century.

Direct $34 Million (Real Money!) For A Regional Plan
Hundreds of residents have stated at community meetings, including a standing-room-only gathering last summer, that they support the third option. But in order to achieve a truly effective and environmentally-sensitive transportation plan local leaders must act fast to redirect millions of state and federal dollars now tied to the proposed Boardman River road and bridge.

The state, for instance, has committed $16 million to the proposed bridge. Traverse City commissioners and new mayor Linda Smyka have an opportunity to work with other local leaders in urging Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm to rework a contract and deliver the designated state money for a better transportation plan

Local leaders, particularly Republican state Senator Jason Allen, also can work with members of the state’s congressional delegation to apply the $18 million in federal funds sought from Congress to a regional transportation project instead of to a single bridge. There is precedent for this: In 1996, Democratic U.S. Representative Bart Stupak inserted a clause into a Congressional bill that provided funds for a regional transportation plan in place of a disputed $90 million highway in Petoskey.

Not acting quickly enough could lead to forfeiting both the state and federal funds. And that would be a grave mistake; $34 million buys a lot of progress with new congestion-relieving road links, aggressive road repair, traffic signal upgrades, public transit support, and trail links that really solve the region’s traffic problems while conserving the natural areas that make the Grand Traverse region the great place it is.

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and manager of the Michigan Land Use Institute’s local and statewide transportation reform efforts. He works in the Institute’s Beulah office. Keith Schneider is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s deputy director. Reach them at kelly@mlui.org and keith@mlui.org. Read more about the Michigan Land Use Institute’s work to develop a reasoned transportation plan for the Grand Traverse region at www.mlui.org.

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