*This column originally appeared in the the Sept. 8, 2013, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
For decades engineers thought new bypasses would ease congestion. They were wrong. (Photo: Houston Chronicle Archives)
Traffic problems take on new urgency during Traverse City’s busy season as too much congestion hampers business growth, wastes fuel, and hurts this area’s quality of life.
But local leaders need to fix our existing transportation network first before pursuing an expensive, ill-conceived, short-term remedy like a new Hartman-Hammond bridge. The bypass would only create more congestion south of town, bury governments in debt, and do little to ease traffic within Traverse City.
Instead, officials can alleviate traffic by improving our busiest roads; making it easier for people to get around without a car; and upgrading an existing bypass via Keystone and Beitner roads. These common sense proposals have been on the table for years, cost far less, and carry broad public support. What’s lacking is leadership.
A Hartman-Hammond bridge would offer only short-term relief to a long-term problem. For decades, traffic engineers responded to congestion by building bypasses around. It didn’t work. Communities across the country found that as restaurants and stores shifted to these new roads, congestion actually worsened. Studies show that for every 10 percent increase in road capacity, a 9 percent increase in traffic followed.
That ‘build-our-way-out’ model crippled transportation budgets at every level, and state and federal governments are digging themselves out of major transportation deficits. We can’t expect Washington and Lansing to bail us out of our own mess. A new bridge project would require federal, state, and local dollars that simply aren’t there.
The Grand Traverse Road Commission, which struggles to fix its existing roads, will ask area voters for a millage this fall. If voters are expected to pay higher taxes, they’ll want their roads fixed—not a shiny new bridge. Proposing a new $30 million bypass is irresponsible.
Our scarce transportation dollars would be better spent on lower-cost and more effective solutions that are proven to work and already carry public support. We can eliminate stop-and-go conditions and boost traffic flow by improving intersections and traffic signals; reducing commercial driveways; and adding service drives, sidewalks, and better transit connections on roads like Division, Grandview Parkway, and South Airport.
Also, since most cars on our busiest roads are heading into Traverse City, not around it, local leaders should set goals for reducing the number of cross-town and commuter car trips. They should prioritize fixed-schedule bus service, park-and-ride systems, and bike routes that connect commuters to job centers. If just another 10 percent of Grand Traverse County workers carpooled, rode the bus, biked or walked to work, thousands of cars would be taken off the roads.
Finally, by upgrading the existing Beitner and Keystone roads from Chum’s Corner to Hammond Road, local officials would have a more sensible bypass for cars and trucks traveling around the city.
Let’s encourage our local leaders to work on real traffic solutions—not spend millions on a bridge that offers only short-term relief while miring us deeper in debt.
James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.