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Scraping the Bottom of the (Pork) Barrel

Grand Traverse officials hope feds will fund bridge that many local taxpayers oppose

April 18, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe
  Intense local opposition to building a highway and bridge through the Boardman River valley has forced the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to pin its funding hopes on the federal government, which is also backing away from the project.

TRAVERSE CITY— Grand Traverse County and its road commission have decided to sidestep the will of local voters and taxpayers by relying almost exclusively on scarce federal funds instead of a county millage to prop up a highly controversial road construction proposal. The proposal, a four-lane highway and bridge that would plow through a still-wild river valley just south of this city, already faces opposition from many local citizens and a state environmental agency. Now it is also faces a multimillion-dollar funding gap.

Ignoring yet another round of citizen requests to scuttle the project, the road commission and a county board committee last Wednesday decided to rely exclusively on outside funds for the $55 million project. Because of Michigan’s large budget deficit and traditional reluctance to fund county road construction, the new strategy makes Congress the last hope for reviving the flagging proposal, whose cost has doubled since 2001. And although adequate federal funding for the project is also increasingly unlikely, road commission officials seem undaunted about finding a way to pay for the expensive project that somehow won’t affect local tax rates.

“We are fully committed to not asking Grand Traverse County taxpayers for a local millage to pay for this project or any project, for that matter,” said Walter “Jay” Hooper, road commission chairman, responding to mounting public pressure to explain the project’s nebulous funding plan. Mr. Hooper spoke in a rare appearance before the county’s committee on infrastructure, which usually hears only from the road commission staff.

The road commission’s new aversion to pursuing local funding reflects the fact that the proposal has little traction with local residents. A countywide vote in 1987 rejected a funding proposal by more than a 2-to1 margin; the Traverse City Commission has repeatedly voted against the idea.

But even while foreclosing local taxation as a way to pay for the project, Mr. Hooper acknowledged the bridge and highway proposal faced an unspecified funding shortfall that is, in his words, a “key issue that we have to address.” Based on the road commission’s own documents and statements, critics peg the shortfall at about $35 million, or nearly two-thirds of its total price tag.

Federal Support Fading
The timing of Mr. Hooper’s comments was particularly remarkable because the road commission learned just a week ago that its request for $21 million in federal highway funds is likely to yield no more than $3 million during the next six years. That is the amount U.S. Representative Dave Camp, a Republican from Midland, reserved for the region in a national transportation bill passed by the U.S. House on April 2.

The federal legislation now heads to a House-Senate conference committee for passage by April 30. When passed, it will foreclose additional federal funding for the road commission until 2009, when the law would expire. At that rate, the road commission would require 42 years to amass the federal dollars it seeks for the bridge and highway, money that in the meantime would do nothing to ease the traffic congestion that will continue to increase because of the commission’s inaction.

Taken together, the road commission’s significant funding shortfall and its reliance on limited federal funding means the proposal, known as the Hartman-Hammond-Three Mile road and bridge project, is almost out of gas.

Moreover, the project, which would bisect a public park and the vibrant Boardman River valley just south of Traverse City, also faces formal objection from the state Department of Environmental Quality. The state agency determined in March that the road commission had used an “erroneous assumption” to advance the most damaging proposal — its own — and dismiss the most protective alternatives, which citizen groups in the county, including the Michigan Land Use Institute, have long argued are both significantly less expensive and more effective.

The only remaining question is just how much additional time and taxpayer money the road commission will spend before it finally hits the brakes on the road and bridge project and embraces a cheaper and better solution.

“Money Down a Rat Hole”
A national expert on public highway investments said that the funding for the highway project fits the profile of the worst pork that Congress is serving up this year. “We look at all the congressional earmarks in the country, and this is the worst scenario because it’s been shot down by locals — the city and a lot of the public — and it’s only the federal money that keeps it alive,” said Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington D.C. “This is just money down a rat hole.”

It is also, observers say, an unusually large amount of money. Members of Congress traditionally use road and transit bills to send money back home, a process that many call “pork” and others call a blessing, depending on the project and the vantage point. In fact, House members stashed 2,000 such earmarks, totaling more than $11 billion, in the $275 billion transportation bill, known as the Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or TEA-LU. And Michigan’s House delegation was able to insert about 100 funding line items totaling more than $200 million for highway, bus, train, pedestrian, and bicycle projects.

But none of the line items now earmarked for Michigan are as high as the $21 million that the Grand Traverse County Road Commission requested and which most likely will be replaced with the $3 million amount that Mr. Camp has estimated. Most Michigan earmarks are for approximately $1 million; many are for far less than that.

Representative Camp, who gained Grand Traverse County when Congress redrew district lines in 2002, acknowledges that the state DEQ’s objection to the Hartman-Hammond project has made it difficult to muster support among Michigan’s Congressional delegation for all of those dollars.

Gambling with Motorists’ Money
The Institute and a coalition of local environmental groups have repeatedly urged the road commission to seek federal funds for solving the region’s intensifying traffic problems in ways that, unlike the Hartman-Hammond proposal, have wide public support: Road and bridge repair and pursuit of a citizen-led Smart Roads alternative that would upgrade existing roads and protect the environment. But the local road agency has refused. If the commission loses its high-stakes gambit for federally funding its valley-spanning project, it could cost the region the return of tens of millions of dollars in federal gasoline taxes that flow from local motorists, who send 18.4 cents to the federal government for every gallon of gasoline they purchase.

But the road commission shows no sign of changing tactics. Responding to an inquiry from the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service last week, Sage Eastman, communications director for Mr. Camp, confirmed that the county hasn’t abandoned its hope for tens of millions of federal dollars to save its project: “No amended request has been received yet, though discussions I believe are ongoing.” Last Wednesday Mr. Eastman reconfirmed that the road commission still had not changed its earmark request — something that day’s county committee meeting also made clear.

The prospect of few federal transportation dollars returning to the county and the road commission’s seeming indifference to strong public opposition to the project caused local planning and environmental activist John Nelson to appeal directly to the elected county board members — who appoint the road commission — to take the reins and halt the runaway scheme.

“Where does it end?” said Mr. Nelson, a co-chair of one of the groups calling for the highway project’s end.

Glimmers of Hope
While opposing the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council’s request to halt the highway project, the road commission and county committee did agree Wednesday with the group to seek support for a long-range regional transportation plan, though funding for it remains very limited and the road commission did not immediately pledge any money of its own.

In an interview after the meeting, road commission manager Mike Dillenbeck said he would not reapply for a wetland-filling permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality before fall, if at all this year. Significant DEQ-identified work remains, he said: Updating traffic modeling, studying alternatives to the highway project, and redesigning the proposed bridge for the third time.

Mr. Dillenbeck expressed frustration at the protracted process, contending that the state DEQ is “more concerned about form than substance” and that new staff there need “re-education.”

If the state ever does permit the project, Mr. Dillenbeck insisted that the substantial funding shortfall wouldn’t be a problem because the road commission would work in phases. He said, for example, that the road commission could build the highway bridge but not the roads to get to it, and then determine how to get more tax money to finish the job.

Mr. Dillenbeck said he remains optimistic about the highway project’s fate, which he has shepherded since 1988, but agreed that the road commissioners who oversee him are less hopeful than he is.

That was obvious Wednesday, when Mr. Hooper, the road commission chairman, said the next step is to evaluate the time and cost involved in doing still more work on the project that might never satisfy the state environmental agency. And he noted, “Even if we move forward and get the permit, there’s the issue of cost. We’re short of funds.”

Kelly Thayer, a journalist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Northwest Michigan Transportation and Land Use Project. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org

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