|A motorist waits to cross the narrow, one-lane bridge along Cass Road.|
A brand-new Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners narrowly avoided a decision this week that would have put a key road crossing of the Boardman River at risk while gambling on an elusive and expensive bypass.
Prior to Wednesday night’s Ways and Means Committee meeting, four county commissioners indicated they would oppose building a new Cass Road crossing, despite a 2013 agreement with the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to move ahead with the project. They cited concerns about uncertain cost estimates for the project, and questions about how much the county will be financially responsible.
Rather than replace the current bridge, the commissioners instead wanted to pursue a $98 million Hartman-Hammond bypass.
But amid public outcry and re-assertion of key facts, the mostly fresh board slowed down their plans to rescind support for the replacement project, and instead decided to schedule an informational meeting with the road commission to evaluate whether to proceed on the project, if at all.
Board members appeared swayed by many voices, including staff from Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), the Village of Kingsley, three Traverse City commissioners, a Grand Traverse County road commissioner, and Rotary Charities, which provided funding for the Cass bridge replacement project.
County staff, including Administrator Dave Benda and Grand Traverse Road Commission Manager Jim Cook, also provided information that clarified what would happen if they removed one of only a handful of Boardman River crossings in Grand Traverse County without a viable alternative in operation.
Newly elected commissioners Bob Johnson and Carol Crawford both reconsidered their original positions based on the information presented:
· TCAPS would lose $120,000 every year the Cass bridge is closed, according to the district’s Joe Yelencich;
· Roughly $200,000 to $300,00 has already been spent in design and engineering costs for a new Cass Road bridge, according to Grand Traverse County Road Commission Manager Jim Cook.
· Stopping the project right now will send a negative signal to current funders like Rotary Charities and the Frey Foundation, as well as potential funders, according to County Administrator Dave Benda.
· The Hartman-Hammond bypass would cost nearly $100 million, according to the TC-TALUS long-range plan.
· It would likely be 10 years until any Hartman-Hammond bridge is operational, according to Cook.
· About 14,000 cars a day would use a new Cass Road bridge. If it’s not replaced after the dam is removed, the 5,500 cars that use it now every day would be added to other roads, according to Cook.
Traverse City Commissioner Ross Richardson was very direct in his advice: "Try not to screw up the transportation system any more than it already is."
The proposal before the committee was prompted by Garfield Township Supervisor Chuck Korn, the leading proponent of a Hartman-Hammond bypass he believes would relieve congestion on the sprawling South Airport Road in his township.
Korn’s strategy: Block the Cass Road project and advance the Hartman-Hammond bypass as the only new bridge across the Boardman. It’s a risky gamble with several flaws.
First, there are no funds secured for a new Hartman-Hammond crossing and neither Washington nor Lansing is in a position to help. The state and federal governments are both digging themselves out of major transportation deficits and dollars for new bypasses simply aren’t there.
Second, there’s no plan, proposal, review process, permit request, or funding in place for a Hartman-Hammond crossing. So when the dam comes out next year, there will likely be 10 years without a river crossing in that area.
Third, the previous Hartman-Hammond proposal failed to receive necessary environmental permits because other feasible and prudent alternatives, like upgrading Keystone and Beitner roads, existed and were not explored.
Finally, there has been overwhelming public support documented in Grand Vision surveys for maintaining local streets and improving our existing major corridors like Division Street and Grandview Parkway.
Despite these significant questions, the board unanimously passed a motion on Wednesday in support of a Hartman-Hammond bypass. However, Korn’s strategy of lumping the Hartman-Hammond and the Cass Road proposals together failed. With urging from Commissioner Sonny Wheelock, the board decided to vote on the motions separately. Subsequently, they also approved action to continue studying the Cass Road crossing with the road commission and the dam removal team.
Continued community input, as well as a full vetting of the facts, will be necessary to ensure that a reasonable decision is made to maintain and improve the Cass Road bridge.