The $365,000 Question
Is GT County Road Commission quietly resurrecting the Hartman-Hammond Bridge proposal?
By Patrick Sullivan | Jan. 19, 2019
After a year of in-depth study, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission is preparing to unveil several options to improve east-west traffic flow around Traverse City.
They plan to host a public meeting in February to announce the options, but in the meantime, officials are keeping details under wraps. Though they’ve released a map that roughly shows nine route alternatives under consideration, they’ve refused to provide any details until that yet-to-be-scheduled meeting.
That’s a red flag for some observers who fear that this process, which the road commission has dubbed the East-West Corridor Transportation Study, is predestined to result yet again in some form of a Hartman-Hammond Bridge proposal.
EVERYTHING IS ON THE TABLE
When a Hartman-Hammond Bridge was first proposed in the 1990s, the road commission dug in and pursued the project single-mindedly, setting them up against a coalition of opponents who opposed the project on environmental and anti-sprawl grounds. The debate sparked a discussion of “smart growth” and ultimately, after the bridge project was abandoned, sparked the Grand Vision project, a years-long discussion of growth in the region.
This time around, now that the topic has again turned to how to reduce congestion on east-west corridors, like South Airport Road, the road commission is decidedly not single-minded – all options are on the table, including improving existing corridors, and they’ve gone to great lengths to include everyone in the planning, said Megan Olds, the project’s spokeswoman.
John Nelson, a former road commissioner who has attended the study sessions on behalf of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, agrees that officials have attempted to be inclusive and hear the voices from across the spectrum, but he is baffled by the road commission’s refusal to offer details about the route alternatives before that public meeting in February.
“The thing is,[some of the proposed route alternatives]have been released,” Nelson said. “I don’t know what to say. I was at the meeting where it was shared with 30 people. They encouraged us to share them with our membership.”
Some observers are already skeptical about the process and are worried that another Hartman-Hammond bridge proposal is a “fait accompli,” Nelson said. “Many of my membership feel the solution is already baked in the cake.”
Nelson said if the road commission is truly committed to a public and transparent process, they would release all of the information they have, and they would want to get the details out prior to a public meeting.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking, that they can’t share it with the media,” Nelson said. “It’s backwards. To me, it’s backwards. You have the scenarios. They should be out to the public.”
PLANNING IS IMPORTANT
Despite the transportation study’s inclusiveness — representatives from the government, business community, and special interest groups have been invited to share insights and ideas and ask questions — Nelson said the year-long process hasn’t been exactly entirely open.
Except for one public meeting in April, and a “land-use” education session that took place Jan. 14, the study meetings have been invitation-only. Nelson said he asked if other members of NMEAC could attend the meetings, and Olds told him no. Nelson said the rationale could not have been out of space concerns; there’s been plenty of extra room at the meetings.
Nelson said he is also concerned about the cost of the study and that the study is diverting money that could otherwise have been spent on road repairs. Phase I of the study is expected to cost $365,000.
Voters have twice in recent years approved hefty millages to maintain county roads, but they weren’t asked to pay for transportation studies. When Nelson sat on the road commission, he persuaded the commission to pledge to use the millage money to fix the roads. He didn’t want to see any money used to promote traffic corridor construction.
“I think that they are not honoring it. They are not honoring the pledge that they made to voters,” Nelson said.
Wayne A. Schoonover, manager of engineering and acting road commission manager, said it’s a valid concern to worry about money not spent directly on road maintenance, but he says funding for the study comes from the road commission general fund — not from millage funds. He says road commissioners deemed it a priority to respond to complaints from motorists about congestion around Traverse City.
“Planning is important,” Schoonover said. “We’re trying to be open and comprehensive in looking at this, and unfortunately that doesn’t happen for free.”
“THERE IS NO SECRECY”
Olds said that, from the outset, the goal of the project has been to come up with traffic solutions by reaching out to as many people as possible.
“The goal has been to try to get feedback from groups that represent a wide range of interests,” she said. “The intention has been to engage people as actively as we can in the process.”
Olds said that she disagreed that not releasing the details of the route alternatives prior to the February meeting signaled an unwillingness to make the process transparent.
“I don’t know if secrecy is the word I would use,” Olds said. “February is when the conceptual solutions can be shared. …There is no secrecy.”
Olds said that officials plan to condense the nine alternatives into five or six alternatives before they are unveiled.
She said that although most of the meetings have been by invitation only, there was a public meeting in April that was announced through a press release. The public can attend road commission board meetings, where the options have been discussed. There was also a public survey.
“Even though we haven’t had a lot of public meetings, we’ve had a lot of conversations,” Olds said. “Before we take things to the public, we want to make sure that whatever we share with the public is representative of all of those pieces of knowledge and pieces of data.”
Olds said she is “very aware” that some members of a group like NMEAC, which was opposed to the original Hartman-Hammond Bridge proposal, are suspicious of the process, but she said they’ve been involved and kept informed throughout.
“I’m very aware of a lot of those concerns,” she said. “They are well aware of this process — you know, John Nelson is at every single stakeholder meeting.”
Greg Reisig, chairman of NMEAC, said he is suspicious of the study. He doesn’t understand why so many of the meetings have been private and why the road commission cannot release all of the information about the route alternatives that they have.
“When I asked to attend along with John, they refused,” he said. “I think that a better way would have been to open it up to the public from the very beginning and tell the public what they wanted to do and then ask for the public’s input.”
Reisig believes the process was designed so that it would end in the conclusion that the county needs something like the original Hartman-Hammond Bridge proposal.
“It’s become quite obvious they will return to Hammond-Hartmann as one of their alternatives, yet they have no new data to support this alternative,” Reisig said.
He said he wants to see traffic studies that show such a project is warranted. Reisig can rattle off a litany of reasons why such a project would be bad for the environment and merely create another congested commercial corridor, but ultimately Reisig disagrees with the premise behind the argument that Traverse City needs a traffic bypass.
“People don’t really want to bypass Traverse City,” he said. “Most people, their destination is Traverse City.”
Reisig said NMEAC supports improving Beitner and Keystone roads so that that the corridor could connect with Hammond Road without new road construction. That appears to be one of the alternatives under consideration.
Jim Lively is program director at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, formerly known as the Michigan Land Use Institute, which strongly opposed Hartman-Hammond. He said the road commission has since adopted many of the “smart roads” features groups opposed to the Hartman-Hammond bridge in the 1990s proposed as alternatives.
But, he says, the road commission has neglected one of those central suggestions: Fixing South Airport Road.
Lively said Groundwork plans to support that fix and the option to develop Beitner-Keystone-Hammond as an east-west corridor.
“Fix the current infrastructure before you start building something,” Lively said.
ROADS LIKE PARKING LOTS
Road commissioner Marc McKellar said he believes some people are just opposed to building new roads no matter what, and he said those people are impossible to negotiate with.
Discussion of transportation solutions will have to involve consideration of new roads and bridges, he said.
“When you look at an east west corridor, and there’s a river that goes north-south, somehow that river needs to be included,” McKellar said. “You’ve got to cross it somewhere.”
McKellar said he knows that there are some people who believe a conspiracy is afoot to quietly move forward with a Hartman-Hammond bridge proposal.
“I can’t do anything about that. I mean, they are going to look for the negative, I guess. I don’t know,” he said. “You can’t sneak anything through.”
He said the study hasn’t had a lot of public involvement because the public hasn’t been that interested in getting involved. Sometimes no one even shows up to road commission board meetings, which are legally required to be open to the public, he said.
“We’ve had good involvement with the public that have attended. We’re trying very hard to get early engagement with all parties,” McKellar said. “It’s just been really difficult.”
McKeller said the route option details haven’t been finalized, and that means that even a basic explanation of what each of the nine options are that are included in the map cannot be released to the public.
“You can’t get that information because we as a board don’t even have that,” he said. “As a board, we don’t have the ‘final’ preliminary concepts. … Based on the input that’s already been given, those early concepts continue to evolve.”
Jason Gillman, the road commission chair who’s been on the board since 2016, said that he would support some kind of Hartman-Hammond Bridge if the study determined one was warranted, but the transportation study has shown him that such an option might not be feasible. He said he’s willing to look at other options.
Regardless, Gillman says he’s glad the study is taking place because whatever conclusion they come to, something needs to be done to improve traffic flow through the region.
“There’s a recognizable need for some solution that eases traffic through town. … We’ve got 30,000 more people than we did in 1990 in Grand Traverse County,” he said. South Airport Road “can be a parking lot at times.”
Connecting the dots
Though the Grand Traverse County Road Commission declined to provide details prior to a February public meeting, below are the route alternatives as best as we can tell, based on the road commission’s map and an interview with John Nelson, who’s been kept up to date at invitation-only meetings about the options:
Options one and two (ALT #1 & 2) appear to focus on improving the South Airport Road corridor from US-31 to Three Mile Road. Nelson said these options could involve converting major intersections (at Garfield and Cass roads, for example) into roundabouts. One of the options appears to include the construction of a new road between South Airport and US-31, just north of the Grand Traverse Mall, perhaps at the current location of Day Drive.
Options three, four, five and seven (ALT #3,4,5 & 7) appear to be variations of some kind of Hartman-Hammond Bridge proposal. These appear to propose construction of a new road to the west of the river. In one scenario, the new road would spur off of Hartman Road just past the Cass Road intersection, and the new road would cross Dracka Road and bisect the buffalo ranch that’s located east of US-31, connecting Hammond with US-31. The proposed construction of a road through the buffalo property was ultimately one of the things that killed the first Hartman-Hammond Bridge proposal in the early 2000s because it would have required destruction of wetlands. In another scenario, another option appears to use the existing Boardman River crossing at Cass Road and extend Cass Road west to US-31, crossing Dracka and Broad roads. On the other end of the corridor, the map includes reconfigured intersections that might redirect all lanes of traffic north on either Three Mile or Four Mile roads.
Options six and eight (ALT #6A, 6B & 8) appear to involve moving the corridor along Rennie School Road and then reconfiguring Rennie School Road so that it meets Hoch Road at Keystone Road. The corridor then follows Hoch east to either Three Mile or Four Mile roads. These options might also include the use of Beitner Road. It is unclear if these options include the plan endorsed by the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which is to develop a bypass corridor from Beitner to Keystone to Hammond.
Option nine (ALT #9) appears to involve rerouting Rennie School Road north to meet Cass Road just west of the recently constructed Cass Road bridge.