Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 20, 2013

Grand Traverse road board going against grain


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — The Grand Traverse County Road Commission's decision to pull out of a regional transportation collaborative goes against a prevailing belief in Michigan that regional cooperation is required to push along big road projects, several experts said.

Road commissioners last month voted to delete $20,200 in funding to TC-TALUS — a regional transportation planning group that serves Traverse City and the surrounding area. The decision means Grand Traverse County no longer will be at the table with the city of Traverse City, Leelanau County and several area townships to map out a long-term roads plan and how to fund them in northern Michigan.

"The funding is very important to us, but equally important is their participation," said TC-TALUS Director Matt Skeels. "The road commission is the largest transportation agency around here. Without them, we are much less of an organization."

This week, road commission Manager Jim Cook said the road board is open to revisiting a relationship with TALUS. He said the commission participates in the Grand Vision land and transportation study's transportation network, which focuses on regional transportation strategies.

"We are willing to revisit with the TALUS board if TALUS had a different structure or looked differently," Cook said.

The decision to pull funding from TALUS comes as cities across Michigan increasingly view regional transportation planning as a necessity. Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, declined comment on the road commission's decision.

Steudle said MDOT wants communities to adopt regional strategies for roads and transportation.

"It's that process that helps determine where the funding goes," Steudle said. "That's why we are involved (regional transportation collaboratives) all across the state. You end up with solutions that are best for the region. Projects are better coordinated, better thought out, and they are projects everyone gets behind."

Kathleen Lomako is deputy executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which oversees transportation planning in the Detroit area. She said regional planning for transportation is "a must."

"We are competing as regions now in a global economy," Lomako said. "It's not about local governments. It's about regions."

Members of the road commission who voted to kill TALUS funding said the organization isn't producing results and lacks accountability.

Garfield Township Supervisor Chuck Korn is a TC-TALUS member. He said he's frustrated with TALAS because of what he described as "circular" discussions about roadway planning that often don't produce definable results.

He wants to see more relevant traffic and land use modeling, such as plans for what to do about congested South Airport Road. He said some perceive TALUS as having an environmental agenda that includes avoiding a new discussion on connecting Hartman and Hammond roads over the Boardman River, a fractious topic early last decade that spurred the Grand Vision process.

But Korn wants to see TALUS survive.

"I think it's coming around," Korn said. "I think there is more of an awareness of the community's disappointment with their performance. Hopefully, the road commission's decision to defund is the cathartic (event) we are looking for."

The decision to cut TALUS funding didn't happen overnight. In April 2011, the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners debated whether to pull money from TALAS after $1.9 million in federal transportation funding for Grand Traverse County-based projects was shifted to Buckley because a study for the Grand Vision was completed a year late. TALUS oversaw the Grand Vision transportation study.

John Weiss serves as executive director of the Grand Valley Metro Council, which oversees a metropolitan planning organization for transportation issues in the Grand Rapids region. He said county road commissions receive their set amounts of state funding every year, and a decision to opt out of a regional planning group won't translate into financial penalties from the state.

He said the advantage of region-wide transportation planning is "speaking from one voice" to identify which road projects are the most important.

"We are cooperating together on roads and lots of different public services," Weiss said. "It gives us the opportunity to bring about efficiencies."