Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 26, 2013

Grand Traverse road board cuts TALUS funding

Some leaders say it didn't fully consider repercussions


TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County's Road Commission board hastily cut funding to the Traverse City Area Transportation and Land Use Study without fully considering repercussions, some community leaders contend.

"It is really the equivalent of firing your coach without having any idea of who you are going to replace her or him with," said Doug Luciani, president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.

TC-TALUS' future is unclear without the road commission's $20,000 stipend. The road commission was the second largest funder of the 22 agencies in TALUS, behind the Michigan Department of Transportation.

TALUS' annual budget is $90,000.

"That is a major portion of our budget," said Matt Skeels, TC-TALUS executive director and its only employee. "And we're about as lean as we can get."

Skeels provides transportation planning for the urbanized area around Traverse City, including much of Grand Traverse County, the city, part of Leelanau County, and parts of Acme, East Bay, Peninsula, Garfield, Blair, and Long Lake townships.

Multijurisdictional planning agencies like TALUS help obtain funding from outside groups like the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and nonprofit foundations, Luciani and other officials said.

"The first thing they're going to ask us is, 'Do you have a regional planning group in place,' and if you don't you may not get the funding, or you have to create one," said road Commissioner John Nelson, who voted against the cut. "Well, we have one, we don't have to create it, it's already there."

Nelson tried to table the vote until road board members could discuss the issue with other TALUS stakeholders, but his motion to table failed.

Jim Lively, Michigan Land Use Institute program director, said the road commission's vote sent a dangerous message to possible funding sources.

"If you take actions to defund a coordinating body you are sending a message that we are not working well together," he said.

Commissioners who voted for the funding cut argued TALUS lacked accountability and failed to demonstrate its value to its member agencies.

"I at this point cannot vote with any conscious to fund TALUS because I am not seeing a return on my investment," road commission Chairman Carl Brown said.

Officials said they understood the road commission's frustration with TALUS, but still urged the road commission to fully consider its worth before voting.

"I am asking that you express to (TALUS) your expectations," Garfield Township Supervisor Chuck Korn wrote in an email to the road board. "If you take the lead in moving forward with transportation planning, perhaps we can get something accomplished."

Lively acknowledged TALUS has not been as effective as possible. But Lively said the group could play a prominent role in a long-term transportation plan currently in the works.

"We should keep this body around and expect more from it," Lively said. "What we need is coordinated implementation of our long-term strategy."

Other groups such as the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments could provide planning services in the Traverse City Area, but whether they will and how valuable those services would be isn't known, Luciani said.

"We should know the answers to those questions before we start bleeding TC-TALUS," Luciani said, adding, "This would have been a great community discussion to have."

The Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails, NMCOG, MDOT, the Traverse Area Association of Realtors and the chamber sent letters to the road board in support of TC-TALUS.