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Report Offers Route to Cut Petoskey Traffic

Existing roads, tight zoning, bike paths, transit could solve problem

December 7, 2007 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The final report of the Petoskey Area Transportation Study draws on the participation of local residents in a yearlong study.

PETOSKEY—Five years after a large group of area residents forced the state to drop its proposal to build a highway bypass around this northern Michigan city, a new study has recommended solutions to the area’s worsening traffic problem that strongly resemble those the group originally proposed as an alternative to the state’s plan.

The new, state-funded report, which drew on comments made during a year of public meetings on how best to design Petoskey’s roads and other transportation systems, suggests widening some existing streets and building two news ones. Together, the widened and new roads would form a connector that would steer U.S. 31 and U.S. 131 thru-traffic away from Petoskey’s badly congested downtown and through the Emmet County countryside surrounding the city.

The new Petoskey Area Transportation Study also endorses new traffic signals, more controlled access to busy thoroughfares, more sidewalks and bike paths, and a modest new public transit system.

The study is sparking some controversy in adjacent Bear Creek Township, where the Michigan Department of Transportation originally wanted to build a four-lane expressway bypass through prime farmland. Some residents worry that the new route through that township could trigger a new round of sprawling development just outside the city. Supporters of the proposed new route, however, say it is a big improvement over the state’s bypass plan: It would disturb far smaller amounts of farmland by depending heavily, although not exclusively, on existing roads.

"I think it certainly has potential," said Dennis Keiser, Bear Creek Township supervisor. "I don’t think I would support four lanes, but I think a connector road makes sense, and a two-lane road in the rural part of the township would suffice."

Local officials will consider the new route and the study’s menu of other congestion-reducing proposals over the next year before accepting, rejecting, or modifying them. How they and their constituents react to the recommendations—and whether they enact measures to curb development along the new route—could measure just how interested the community still is in preserving farmland, building a more pedestrian-friendly community, and curbing sprawl.

Those goals, say many opponents of the original bypass who are now reviewing the new report’s recommendations, are basic to protecting tourism and farming, the main pillars of the region’s economy.

A Blueprint for Moving Forward
Traffic consultant Joseph Corradino, whose firm conducted the public meetings and wrote the final report and recommendations, said his company relied on citizen input to come up with the recommendations for improving overall traffic flow in Petoskey and its surrounding townships. He predicted that a special committee of government representatives from Bear Creek and Resort Townships and the City of Petoskey would recommend that their municipalities act on the recommendations.

Those same local units will also have to prioritize the recommendations and figure out how to pay for them: When the state gave up on its bypass proposal, it handed off all decision-making authority and most financial responsibility for solving the area’s traffic congestion to the townships and the city, along with funds to conduct the just-released report. And even though construction of the connector road would not begin for nearly two decades, Mr. Corradino said officials should immediately begin work on it by securing rights of way.

"This is a blueprint for them to go forward, and there is some traction on this," Mr. Corradino said. "I sense momentum coming together to see these recommendations get implemented. Everyone’s challenge right now is the same—there is not enough money. But the way we’ve staged these, it doesn’t break the bank."

The proposed connector would form an arc between U.S. 31 and U.S. 131 using Manvel, Mitchell, Division, Atkins, McDougal and Lears Roads, along with two new roadways to fill in several gaps in the route.

A Sprawl-Spreader?
But opposition to the connector roads is emerging. One Bear Creek Township farmer, Allen C. Sevener, owns farmland directly in the path of the connector, and he promised a legal fight if new pavement cuts through his farm.

"If they do as projected so far, I’m going to take them to court," Mr. Sevener said. "There’s a lot at stake for me and I don’t see giving them the benefit of increasing (the value of other nearby) property and decreasing mine by putting a major highway through the middle of my farm."

Emmet County residentDean Fleury opposes building the connector for broader reasons. He said the connector is really just another bypass, and he worries that it would prompt commercial development where currently there is only residential housing and a few farms.

"Strip malls, competing businesses, and you’ll kill downtown," Mr. Fleury said. "It’s already sprawling out down U.S. 31 and U.S. 131. Why do we need more of the same?"

But Mr. Corradino insisted that the new proposal does not add up to a bypass, and that if local governments secure rights of way and properly manage what growth does occur along the roadway, then those new roads could serve as sort of growth boundary for the area.

"It ain’t a freeway—there are no interchanges," Mr. Corradino argued. "The plan is to try to take advantage of existing rights of way, widen the road, and do it in increments. That will influence a lot of planning, and a lot of development, and the growth won’t go out to the hinterland. That’s the important thing."

Township Supervisor Keiser said that if the connector road gains local approval, he believes that local governments will pursue Mr. Corradino’s recommendations—relying on zoning and planning to avoid sprawl.

"I think the best thing to do right now is let the units of government represented go to their respective boards, get all the feedback required…and then you could go to our state and federal officials" who will help to fund the communities’ decision, Mr. Keiser added.

Old Hands Check In
Former Michigan Land Use Institute transportation policy director Kelly Thayer, who worked closely with local residents in their fight to stop the original bypass proposal, declined to comment on the new connector roads proposal without a closer look at the plan. But he said Mr. Corradino’s recommendation to purchase rights of way and install zoning ordinances that quash sprawl along the proposed route very encouraging.

"It sounds like they’ve looked at things more broadly, and that’s a good thing," Mr. Thayer said.

He observed that opposition to the original bypass was never fueled by a "no more roads" sentiment: Residents resisted the state’s specific proposal because it seemed like a bad idea that would harm Emmet County’s rural landscape yet offer few traffic benefits.

"There has never been a perspective that nothing can or should be done to improve the local road network," he said, and pointed out that an Institute-commissioned study, called Smart Roads: Petoskey, used "the idea of staying on existing routes and making smart linkages."

However, Emily Meyerson, a former Bear Creek Township planner and Petoskey resident, said establishing a connector road in a still-rural area and using zoning to protect its charm is risky.

"This proposed road system goes right through the prime farmlands of the Bear River Valley," Ms. Meyerson pointed out. "Buying development rights, access rights, or land outright is the only secure way to preserve the road corridor and adjacent lands. Strong zoning can work, but only if there is political will behind it. Politics can change, making zoning only one piece of the puzzle."

The former planner was more enthusiastic about the Corradino report’s recommendations for non-motorized transportation, which she said could play a big part in addressing the county’s traffic and transportation problems. Among other things, the study recommends a non-motorized trail stretching from Petoskey to Mackinaw City, a bicycle loop through Petoskey, and improvements to the Little Traverse Wheelway. Together, the expanded network would link Petoskey to virtually all of Emmet County’s villages.

"Non-motorized transportation is a legitimate form of transit and needs to be included in all transportation studies," Ms. Meyerson said. "If a safe option is available, people can make a choice." She added that bike trails not only reduce congestion, but also can be "an active part of public transit, a way to reduce emissions, and a way to stay healthy."

Glenn Puit is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County policy specialist. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. You can read the Petoskey Area Transportation Study Final Report and Recommendations online.

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