TRAVERSE CITY — When wetland biologist Stu Kogge got boots on the ground in the reconfigured Boardman River Valley, he didn’t find any EMR’s, but he did find some fens.
And the first — the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake — often seeks out the other — a unique type of wetland, home to rare plants and animals and fed by groundwater.
“These red areas we’re trying to avoid when possible,” Kogge said, of the fens. “This is a potential area for the massasuga, and though we did not see any of them, we felt the areas were very important to map out, as it’s what the federal agencies are going to want to see.”
The eastern massasuga, the long-eared bat and the Indiana bat are three endangered species potentially living in the Boardman River Valley. Planners must be cognizant of their habitat as they study a preferred location for a new crossing over the Boardman River.
If a crossing is recommended at all.
“The project is to determine the need for improved capacity across the Boardman River corridor, and if there is a need for such a crossing, the intent of this project is to identify where it can go,” said Bill Zip, consultant project manager with OHM Advisors. “First we look at whether we need it and then we determine where it can go.”
The Grand Traverse County Road Commission hired OHM to study the elements of such a crossing; the group also helped author the East-West Transportation Study.
At a webinar Wednesday, representatives of the GTCRC and OMH announced findings — like the existence of several fens — and answered questions.
For example, if there is a crossing, could it be styled after a parkway, so sprawl would not develop around it? Yes, if those in charge of land use regulations — at the township and county level — decide to require it.
Is the crossing a done deal? No. There are four options being studied, and one of those is no bridge at all. Crossing locations being examined are one connecting Hammond and Hartman roads and two versions of a Cass Road crossing.
Is a bridge going to be built next summer? Again, no. The bridge study is part of a series of short-term, mid-term and long term solutions being considered to alleviate the east-west traffic congestion.
“Everyone who lives here knows the challenge of driving the east-west corridor especially during the summer months,” said Matt McCauley, of Networks Northwest. “We also have some of the state’s most precious natural areas.”
Balancing the two is “a conversation worth having,” he said.
If the needs assessment determines a bridge will greatly alleviate traffic congestion, and if federal funding can be secured, a bridge could be built in 10 to 25 years. Cost estimates will be considered, though it’s premature to estimate exact figures, said Todd Davis, of WSP, an OHM subcontractor.
Previous estimates range as high as $40 million.
“Everything we do is an open book,” Davis, who facilitated the webinar, said. “We’ll narrow the area in the potential crossing and we are going to follow the federal highway administration process for complete studies. This is a decades-out item we’re looking at. It’s not just a few years.”
The process the feds require is called a PEL — a Planning and Environmental Linkages — process that has several steps. These include the environmental study (to find out where the fens are, for example), the purpose and need assessment and public outreach.
“We want to deliver the facts to the community for others to make decisions,” Davis added.
The bridge study has been both controversial and expensive — it could cost $2.5 million if a location is selected and a residents’ group tried unsuccessfully to derail the recent road millage renewal because of it.
The group, Citizens for Accountable Road Spending, wanted funds spent on improving the existing road system and not on a bridge study.
GTCRC engineer Wayne Schoonover highlighted projects that are doing just that. A new turn lane and merge from Hammond to Keystone roads, a signal upgrade and optimization on 26 traffic signals in the county and design plans taking shape for a roundabout at Hammond and Four Mile roads, with more roundabouts to follow.
“The South Airport corridor, we’re going to try to do some redevelopment to improve that corridor as well,” Schoonover said. “And work with our township partners within our asset management plan.”
“Will that be enough, that’s what we’re looking at right now,” he added.
Whatever is decided, road officials need to respond to the way residents live, work and drive today and in the future, he said. The county has changed since the Grand Vision was completed decades ago.
Future small group and large group meetings are planned with municipal leaders and the public, Davis said. Whether they will be held remotely or in person is anyone’s guess.
A website devoted to the process, with maps and updates, will soon be added to the GTCRC’s main site, gtcrc.org.
At the end of the process, expected to last well into 2021, OHM will make a formal recommendation, information shows.