Regional planners plead for more transportation funds

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In past decades, regional transportation plans promised a future of universal urban mobility, whether you owned a car or not. Brightly colored maps were bejeweled with dotted lines where light rail, bus lanes and non-motorized trails would go someday, connecting everyone to a reliable and convenient transportation web.

“Moving Mid-Michigan,” the 2020-2045 draft plan for Ingham, Clinton and Eaton counties, up for public comment through Wednesday, Nov. 24, is less pie in the sky than cold water in the face.

At the heart of the draft report, drawn up by the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, is an urgent call for more investment in mobility and infrastructure, including “drivable roads and safe bridges.”

The report acknowledges that in mid-Michigan, “private vehicles are the dominant means of travel,” while lamenting a “lack of efficient, cross-boundary public transit” in the region, compounded by “ever-evolving threats to driver, bicyclist, and pedestrian safety.”

But even King Car is in for a rough ride. The report makes a prediction that would surprise none of the area’s motorists: “continued deterioration of pavement condition with no comprehensive solution in sight.”

The commission expects about $66 million in federal funds to be made available for transportation in the tri-county by 2045, but the empty plate dwarfs the pie. Among the “identified needs” cited for the same period are almost $5 billion in operations and maintenance and $4.26 billion for fresh pavement.

The plan lays out an investment strategy that, by its own account, addresses only 33% of the area’s identified congestion and non-motorized needs, an abysmal 28% of pavement condition needs and 59% of safety needs.

The commission is not a political body, so the report doesn’t cast blame, except to cite “a swarm of funding challenges that prevent substantial investment into fixing roads.”

In more bad news, the commission also found that the rate of car crashes in the region ticked up in 2020, after staying steady for several years. Because the main culprit is distracted driving, highway planners are running out ways to engineer safer roads and will have to rely on public awareness and education.

Curious citizens can read the full report (and weep) on the commission’s website, and wash it down with a poignantly named “fiscally constrained project list” of repairs and traffic safety projects planned for area highways in the coming years.

Since the 1962 Federal Aid Highway Act, federal legislation has required metropolitan area transportation plans to be developed through a “continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive” planning process.

The Tri-County Planning Commission, the official planning body for Ingham, Clinton and Eaton counties, is required to issue a transportation plan every five years.

The draft report does include a few bright spots. It says that a new generation of cleaner vehicles has reduced emissions in the area to the point that the region’s air quality status has improved beyond eligibility to receive specific federal funding for air-enhancing and congestion-reducing projects.

The commission also calls for transportation money to be spent equitably and finds that the tri-county area is doing a good job on that score. More than 78% of planned projects and over 92% of federal dollars – nearly $1.3 billion of investment – that are specifically identified in the plan are targeted in areas with people of minority status and low-income levels.

The wild card in any plan effort these days, including this one, is the COVID-19 pandemic. The commission found that when the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns began in spring 2020, “demand on the tri-county region’s transportation changed overnight,” including a sudden increase in demand for outdoor activities.

Consequently, in addition to laying out the need for more sources of road funding, the plan calls for “robust improvements” in the area’s trail system, in the pandemic period and beyond.

Public comment will be taken at a virtual public meeting of the Board of Commissioners Thursday, Nov. 19, or online through Nov. 24. The final report, incorporating comments and suggestions, will be ready in mid-December.

Transportation Plan Board of Commissioners Meeting

6-8 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 19

View draft at movingmidmichigan.org/documents

Public comment through Nov. 24 at mitcrpc.org/public-comment

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