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Mobility Planning Gets BetterPrint

Thriving Communities | January 20, 2012 | By James Bruckbauer

Anyone who has ever been stuck in traffic trying to drive across Traverse City on a Friday afternoon in the summertime has wondered – or cursed – “Who planned this transportation system?”

Summertime traffic congestion on Traverse City's South Airport Road highlights the need for comprehensive regional transportation solutions.

Yes, we have transportation planners in this region. And those planners know that congestion is primarily caused by cars coming from outside the city. They also know that solutions should involve government jurisdictions well outside the city’s boundaries, and consider ideas beyond road improvements – such as more fixed-schedule bus routes, improved park and ride lots, and  more walkable streets.

But the lone transportation planner for the Traverse City Transportation and Land Use Study (TC-TALUS) has only been funded to consider traffic solutions within a few townships around the city. Segmenting transportation planning by arbitrary geographic borders has added bureaucratic barriers to an already complex problem.

recent merger between TC-TALUS and another transportation planning agency, the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (NWMCOG) Regional Planning Division, will create an opportunity for regional transportation planning that can include more comprehensive solutions. While this type of bureaucratic shuffling among obscure acronym agencies doesn’t make for interesting headlines, it is the type of institutional progress that will have important and positive long-term ramifications for reducing congestion and improving  our transportation system.

Fundamentally, government just became slightly less complex in our region. But more importantly, combining Traverse City- area transportation planning within a broader geographic context will better coordinate planning of the entire regional transportation system. Instead of two appointed bodies making separate plans – and competing for ever-less available funds – there will be one coordinated decision-making system.

And while fixing potholes and plowing snow are local transportation issues still being managed by county road commissions or city departments, the planning process for new investments in transit systems, railroads and roads requires a regional perspective that considers land use patterns. Making investment decisions within a regional body that has representation from local governments will ensure coordination and prioritization of difficult decisions.

If there’s a legitimate concern about this consolidation of decision-making it’s that there could be less accountability for decisions by local elected officials, with planning staff gaining more influence. However that risk is offset by a broader geographic perspective and more technical staff expertise. And there will be an important next step to create a strong regionally representative board within NWMCOG that gives all the key transportation players a seat at the table. With good board appointments and careful oversight from citizen groups like MLUI, this merger should be a significant improvement.

The political decision to merge TC-TALUS into NWMCOG was not easy, or unanimous. Local governments in Michigan never like to cede any authority to any other body, especially a regional one.  But it helped that TC-TALUS was running out of money and political support from the Michigan Department of Transportation.

For more than 20 years TC-TALUS has been a nearly invisible transportation planning organization for the Traverse City area. It was created in the late 1980s at the suggestion of the state Department of Transportation in expectation that the population growth of the Traverse City area would make it eligible for enhanced federal transportation planning funds. Alas, while the region’s growth was strong, it was not nearly dense enough to qualify for the federal funds. Without the hope of additional funding, the onus for funding TC-TALUS fell to local governments. Recent budget shortfalls caused many local governments to consider whether they were getting enough value from TC-TALUS.

In the early 2000s the primary function of TC-TALUS was to support the Grand Traverse County Road Commission’s Hartman-Hammond bridge and bypass proposal.  When that project was rejected by the state, funds were reallocated to a citizen-led land use and transportation study which became the Grand Vision. That’s how TC-TALUS assumed the financial responsibility for that project.

The NWMCOG’s Regional Planning Division was integral to the success of the Grand Vision from the beginning. Because it worked across multiple counties, had adequate staff, and recognized the connection between land use and transportation, the NWMCOG led much of the Grand Vision success.  NWMCOG continues to pursue implementation of the Grand Vision through its recent federal Sustainable Communities grant.

These acronym agencies may seem like faceless bureaucracies, but getting them to work more efficiently is essential to creating a better transportation system for our region. This recent merger is another positive step to implementing the transportation improvements citizens have asked for in their vision.