TRAVERSE CITY — When educating voters about a road millage renewal, it is the roads themselves that should do the talking.
That was the unanimous decision of Grand Traverse County Road Commissioners, at a special meeting Tuesday.
The Local Streets, Roads, Highways, and Bridges Repair and Improvement Millage renewal proposal asks voters to support a property tax of $1 per $1,000 of taxable value, for four years, to repair and improve the county’s streets, roads, highways and bridges.
“I want to get this information to every resident of Grand Traverse County, regardless of whether they’re going to vote or not,” said Road Commissioner Andy Marek. “I want them to know what we’ve done, what we’re doing and how we’ve done it.”
Road commissioners discussed how to educate voters about the millage and decided to spend $9,000 — one-third of what was spent on 2016 millage renewal materials — on print media inserts, digital banner ads and augmenting social media posts with original video of crews at work taken by Road Commissioner Jason Gillman.
The county’s first road millage was passed by voters in 2013, on a narrow 50.5 percent margin.
In 2014, 31 percent of the county’s roads were in poor condition, 41 percent were in fair condition and 27 percent were in good condition, information from the Pavement Surface Evaluation Rating system, included in the asset management plan, shows.
Voters renewed the road millage by 70.5 percent in 2016; current PASER figures show 22 percent of the county’s roads are now in poor condition, 19 percent in fair condition and 58 percent in good condition, said Road Commission Manager Brad Kluczynski.
“There’s a misinformation campaign out there,” Marek said, during meeting discussion Tuesday, “that’s saying we’re not using the money well. But we have, and everyone in Grand Traverse County needs to know that.”
Earlier this month, Peninsula Township Trustees voted 6-0 to oppose the road millage renewal, citing years of disputes.
And members of a newly organized residents’ group, Citizens for Accountable Road Spending, have been increasingly vocal about their opposition to the road millage renewal.
CARS Coordinator Amanda Ingra previously said the residents’ group was founded by Peninsula Township and Traverse City residents, dissatisfied with the closure of Bluff Road and the absence of any plans by the road commission to repair or reopen it. A position paper shared Monday with the Record-Eagle, however, states that is inaccurate and CARS was formed to oppose spending funds on a bridge study.
Bluff Road is a county-maintained road on Old Mission Peninsula, a northern portion of which has been closed since January, after erosion caused by high water made the road dangerous for travel.
Members say the road commission has not been transparent about results of the East-West Corridor Transportation Study, which could cost as much as $2.5 million, a phase of which tasked outside consultants OMH Advisors to evaluate sites for a potential new crossing over the Boardman River.
CARS members, including attorneys Grant Parsons and TJ Andrews, former Road Commissioner John Nelson, Dave Murphy and Ingra, say road commissioners are using the transportation study to justify building a bridge the county doesn’t need.
“That’s right out of their own study,” Andrews said. “It is in the final report done by OMH on behalf of the road commission. The road commission has distanced themselves from it since it came out, but it’s there and it’s their own worst enemy.”
The East-West Corridor Transportation Study recommended short-term (1-5 year), long term (5–10 year) and future potential (10-25 year) solutions to the county’s traffic congestion problems. Short-term recommendations include improved signal timing and roundabouts, long-term solutions include roadway redesigns and expansions and future potential solutions include an additional crossing over the Boardman River.
“It is recommended that the GTCRC focus concurrently on implementing the Short and Long Term Solutions over the next few years, while also exploring the requirements needed to construct a new crossing,” the transportation study states. “A new crossing should be explored after all other options are vetted and it is certain that a crossing will provide a large enough benefit to justify the cost.”
Kluczynski explained the road commission is following a process with the study that local municipalities use when they may seek federal funding in the future for a major infrastructure project like a new bridge.
“We don’t make any recommendations at all,” Kluczynski said. “That is the consultants’ job. We only provide them with the area we want reviewed and then ask them to determine, for that area, what are the best solutions.”
The Federal Highway Administration’s Planning and Environmental Linkages process helps determine a community’s eligibility and streamlines the application process, information from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows.
Completing a PEL, which can take several years, does not obligate a community to apply for federal funds or to build a bridge, Kluczynski said. But if federal funds are sought, the foundation for funding and permits, so to speak, is already completed.
“There are four options,” Kluczynski said. “Three are possible bridge locations and the fourth is no bridge at all.”
In his comments at Tuesday’s meeting, Marek did not name CARS as the originator of what he termed a “misinformation campaign,” though the group has made claims on its website, wrongwayroads.com, not all of which are sourced.
For example: that a new bridge over the Boardman River will cost $40 million; that funding would be provided by a “bigger millage that our grandchildren will be paying off”; that road commissioners continue to fund studies “until they get the results they want”; or that the road commission does not release financial information showing how millage funds are spent.
Andrews said the $40 million figure was actually $44 million, and comes from the transportation study authored by OMH.
The study does include a table listing solutions from roundabouts to boulevards to bridges, and states a new bridge using a Hammond Road crossing over the Boardman River would cost $41 million. The figure comes from a 2003 environmental impact study, “escalated” for 2019 dollars, the study states.
No new cost estimate by a civil engineer has been completed, said Road Commission Vice-Chair William Mouser, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting in Chair Carl Brown’s absence. Millage funding to pay for such a large project is a non-starter, he said.
“I don’t know where that figure came from,” Mouser said. “You need an environmental review, a crossing location, a geographical layout and many other factors to estimate cost. Its premature to put a dollar figure on it. That’s what the PEL is for.”
Mouser said if a bridge was to be built, state and federal funds — not a local millage — would pay for as much as 95 percent of costs. Once built, maintenance would be included in the road commission’s budget, though not at the expense of a higher millage.
“No one on this commission has the appetite for that,” he said.
Mouser also said it makes little sense to equate the Grand Vision, a 2003 community sourced transportation study, with the East-West Transportation Study.
“They are diametrically opposite,” Mouser said. “The Grand Vision was looking for unicorns and fairy dust and wishing and hoping. It was 17 or 18 years ago. The mobility study is not a study to justify a bridge. It’s a study to look at how you get from east to west, and what has come out of it is a number of solutions we’re already doing.”
Mouser cited recent traffic signal upgrades, intersection and road striping work and plans for roundabouts along Hammond, Beitner, Keystone and Cass roads, as examples. These were short term (1-5 year) recommendations taken directly from the East-West Corridor Transportation Study, he said.
“That’s local money doing local things,” he said.
Voters can expect to see educational materials about the millage renewal in local media as well as on the Road Commission’s Facebook page, in the coming days, Kluczynski said.
CARS position statement says the road commission should engage collaboratively and respectfully with the public, should consider climate change and sprawl indicative of uncontrolled growth and work more closely with townships and BATA to plan for development and manage congestion.
Some members of CARS also questioned whether discussion of the production of millage renewal information broke campaign finance laws, though the focus of commissioners and staff at Tuesday’s meeting was on education, which is allowed under campaign finance laws, and not support, which is not.
“I think it would be premature to say they have violated the law,” Andrews said. “I will say I hope they are talking to their lawyer about what they are permitted to say and what they are not.”
Andrews said she thinks voters are frustrated with the road commission and that a no vote is the most direct way to communicate that frustration. She declined to predict the outcome of the ballot question, as did Kluczynski.
“Let the voters vote,” he said.