Updated on February 23, 2023
A $100M bridge: Traverse City bypass plan emerges from 30-year debate
TRAVERSE CITY, MI — To build the bridge, or not build the bridge? That’s been the question in Traverse City for about 30 years. At long last, there’s an answer.
Yes. Build the bridge.
In Grand Traverse County, officials have finally decided to embark on a multi-year project to build a controversial piece of infrastructure that would alleviate traffic congestion in one of the fastest growing communities in Michigan.
In 2022, the county Road Commission voted unanimously to pave way for advance work on a 2,200-foot-long bridge across the Boardman River Valley, which, when finished, will create a new east-west corridor for drivers to bypass Traverse City.
Officials estimate the arching span will last 120 years and cost $100 million to build. Much of that is expected to come from federal infrastructure grants. Not counting international spans, it would be Michigan’s fourth longest bridge.
The July 28 decision marked a turning point in the long-successful effort by environmental and development opponents to keep the bridge at bay due to concern about potential negative impacts on valley wetlands and wildlife.
Opposition remains to the bridge, but project supporters say it has dwindled as the Traverse City area population swells and the few corridors which drivers can use to transit east or west across town have undergone reconstruction.
“It shouldn’t take me 40 minutes to get from one side of Traverse City to the other,” said Kevin Endres, chairman of the Grand Traverse County Economic Development Corporation. “It’s just five miles. It’s not a city with a million people.”
“There’s a demand. There’s a need for it. I see it every day,” said Endres, who works in commercial real estate. “We’re probably behind the eight ball in having this built already.” “It’s well overdue.”
New design would minimize impact, developers say
This year, consultants are determining whether the proposed bridge design adheres to the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA), which requires transportation projects to consider potential impacts to the natural environment.
As proposed, the bridge would only touch the valley floor in four places (aside from the abutments on either end). The pillars would support a span about 70 to 80 feet above the valley. Project managers say that design was chosen to minimize environmental impact.
“It’s going to be a very high, long bridge,” said Brad Kluczynski, Grand Traverse County Road Commission manager. “Its service and function will be to take a big portion of the traffic off South Airport Road. In fact, with the traffic studies that were done, it’s anticipated that we will actually reduce traffic as far north as Front Street or along the bay.”
Because of its geography, Traverse City isn’t the easiest community to travel east or west across. Grand Traverse Bay, the Boardman River and the 317-acre Boardman Lake are natural impediments to crosstown traffic. In town, drivers are pinched into the bayside Grandview Parkway, downtown Front Street, Eighth Street or neighborhood side streets.
At the south end of Boardman Lake, the heavily trafficked South Airport Road retail corridor carries commuter, business and regional bypass traffic and is generally considered a chore to navigate. To avoid it, drivers must enter the city — which can be exceptionally busy during the summer — or detour several miles around the river valley via Cass or Beitner roads.
Kluczynski and bridge supporters say a new crossing would solve that problem. The bridge would connect Hartman Road on the east side of the valley with Hammond Road on the west and would enable drivers approaching Traverse City from the south on U.S. 31 to peel off and head east through a suburban area which is experiencing significant growth.
East of the river, Hammond Road connects to Garfield and Supply roads, which are both access routes to and from Traverse City via U.S. 131. Hammond also connects to Four Mile Road, which enables drivers to reach U.S. 31 along the foot of East Grand Traverse Bay and other communities north and east without traveling down South Airport or through town. When it opens, the bridge is expected to carry between 22,000 and 26,000 cars per day and reduce traffic flow on South Airport Road by 30 percent, Kluczynski said.
That day, however, isn’t right around the corner.
Kluczynski said the NEPA analysis will take at least a year, followed by a couple years of design fine-tuning, land acquisition and securing access easements. Hartman Road will need expansion and a new connection to U.S. 31. If all goes well, groundbreaking is anticipated in 2027.
Actual construction would take another two-plus years, meaning it’s unlikely any cars will be traveling across the valley on a new bridge before 2030.
New corridor has always been controversial
The Road Commission says public support has grown significantly for the project in recent years.
Nonetheless, some local business leaders and statewide economic development officials would not speak to reporters about the regional value of the project.
Matt McCauley, vice president of regional prosperity at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and former CEO of Networks Northwest, which functioned as a subcontractor on Traverse City corridor studies, would not talk about the bridge when contacted by MLive.
McCauley deferred comment to Warren Call, CEO of TC Connect, a chamber organization which leads economic development in the region. Through a TC Connect staff member, Call also declined to be interviewed about the bridge’s potential impact on regional development.
Opponents are eager to talk about the bridge.
The Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC) and Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in Traverse City both oppose the bridge, arguing it could negatively impact the ecology of the river valley as well as invite development sprawl along the Hammond corridor.
“It’s just not needed,” said Ann Rogers, chair of the NMEAC board. On South Airport, “there’s only congestion twice a day — late in the afternoon and sometimes during the morning.”
Rogers thinks the bridge will harm the river valley ecology during construction and would inevitably become a source of salt, sand and other automotive pollution.
A bypass project would be better suited further south, perhaps as far as Kingsley, she said.
Jim Bruckbauer, transportation program manager at the Groundwork Center, argues that improving traffic flow on existing corridors, such as adding roundabouts and improved signaling on South Airport, as well as widening Keystone Road, are more cost-effective options.
“There is concern that building a new crossing would further exaggerate that same issue, which is creating more congestion because you’ll see more development in those areas if there’s a new corridor,” Bruckbauer argued. “We just believe that fixing our existing roads is the right approach before looking at these new major projects.”
John Nelson, a NMEAC board member, echoed that. Development enabled by the bridge will have negative spin-off impacts in the watershed, he said
“What you’ll end up with is another commercial corridor similar to South Airport and it’ll create its own traffic,” Nelson argued. “You’ll end up with another congested corridor which is lined with commercial development.”
East-west connection issue has long been studied
Environmental and urban sprawl concerns have successfully derailed attempts to build the new bridge in the past. A Hammond-Hartman connection has been eyed for decades and was first proposed as part of a $25 million road package rejected by voters in 1987.
The Boardman River valley has changed significantly since then. In the past decade, three obsolete hydroelectric dams were removed as part of a major river restoration effort launched in 2012. All that remains of the massive undertaking is the removal of the Union Street Dam in downtown Traverse City, an effort which is presently stalled in court.
On the traffic side, six different transportation studies between 1992 and 2018 examined the need for a bridge to varying degree as part of a years-long analysis period involving many public meetings and workshops geared toward future transportation and land use around the wider area.
Facing environmental opposition, the Road Commission set the bridge aside in 2004 as the Grand Vision study launched. It resurrected the idea in 2017. Dual studies launched in 2018 examined several alternatives to a Boardman River crossing south of town and, in 2022, consultants recommended a Hammond-Hartman bridge as the best option.
Kluczynski said past designs showed too much impact on wetlands in the river valley, which is now frequented by anglers, hikers and kayakers drawn to a 158-acre nature preserve. He said plans to add a bike lane, a viewing platform and connect bus routes have helped bring people onboard.
On the funding side, “90 percent of this project will be federally funded,” Kluczynski said — thanks in part to increases in population which have put the Traverse City area over the 50,000-person threshold to quality for certain metropolitan planning and infrastructure grants.
Endres, who works in commercial real estate as an owner at the Three West brokerage, said travel time is becoming increasingly important not just for employees looking to shorten or eliminate commutes through remote work, but for businesses moving product.
The area is attracting more distribution businesses looking for smaller distribution centers as supplier and wholesaler logistics change, he said. That will only increase traffic.
“Having seen the progression over the years — working in economic development and commercial real estate — traffic is an increasing problem, issue and topic I run into,” Endres said. “The reason is because of the lack of east-west connection.”
“There might be a select few people who oppose this bridge, but there’s a whole lot more — like the majority — who want this thing built,” he said. “Doing nothing is not an option anymore. We’re past that.”