Muskegon Chamber's eyes focus on the road

December 1, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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Road improvements, including innovations such as roundabouts for enhancing traffic flow and pedestrian amenities in retail areas, are a valuable economic development tool, according to the president of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce.

Cindy Larsen said major retailers such as Meijer know from experience that the degree of road access to a store enables them to predict highly accurate customer counts at that store.

"There's going to be a huge fight for road money" in view of Michigan's growing need for new economic development, she said at a Chamber forum last week.

The Chamber has already held two member forums on the future of the main commercial corridor through the Muskegon area, Business U.S. 31, which is anchored at its northern end by Michigan's Adventure and by the Lakes Mall at its southern end. The next forum will be Dec. 3.

Last week infrastructure engineering experts from Progressive AE, which now has an office in Norton Shores, talked about the increasing use of roundabouts at intersections in American cities, plus devices that "calm" traffic and sidewalk improvements and amenities that encourage retail development.

Roundabouts have been used in Europe for many years but are still relatively new in the U.S. Some regions, such as Boston, have long had traffic circles but those force traffic to stop before entering a circular intersection. Traffic entering the counterclockwise flow in a roundabout must yield to vehicles already there but do not have to stop. They simply slow down and merge into the flow.

Pete LaMourie, director of transportation engineering at Progressive AE, said roundabouts are "much safer" for both pedestrians and drivers than standard intersections, yet they reduce the overall delay for drivers because half of the traffic flow is continually stopped at a standard intersection. Traffic capacity through a standard intersection turned into a roundabout can increase from 15 percent to 50 percent, he said.

In roundabouts, head-on and high-speed right angle collisions are virtually eliminated, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Before-and-after studies of dangerous intersections by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., have indicated that roundabouts can reduce fatalities by more than 90 percent.

The appearance of a roundabout can be aesthetically pleasing, which is why they sometimes are deliberately designed to reflect the symbolic "gateway" into a city or commercial area.

LaMourie noted that an excellent example of an attractive new roundabout was at the intersection of Third Street and West Western Avenue in the revitalized center of downtown Muskegon. In the center of that roundabout is a large, shining stainless steel sculpture, "Muskegon, Together Rising," which was erected this past summer. The 45-foot-high sculpture was created by Chicago artist Richard Hunt.

Roundabouts are also in use now in Grand Rapids, Coopersville and Walker, to name just a few examples. The city of Zeeland will begin construction on one about a year from now at its main intersection downtown.

Driving in a roundabout "truly is intuitive after a while," said LaMourie — but where people have never used them, there is often resistance and fear.

He told the Chamber members about a roundabout built in Okemos at an intersection that had several major accidents each year. The owner of a service station at that intersection was so certain that crashes would increase because of the roundabout, he bought an additional tow truck for his anticipated increase in business. But, according to LaMourie, in the five years after the roundabout was built, there was only one major accident there.

Sometimes local retailers fear the introduction of roundabouts. LaMourie cited a study done in Golden, Colo., a few years ago, where the local business community was skeptical about a city plan to build a series of roundabouts on a main suburban artery with commercial development. City officials even had to promise to remove the roundabouts if a planned grocery store there did not meet sales projections. Four years after the roundabouts were installed, it was the only area in the city reporting continued growth of sales tax revenues.

LaMourie told the Business Journal after the meeting that "people are fearful of change. It takes some real hand-holding."

Another Progressive AE employee who spoke was Bob Petko, a site planner and landscape architect. He talked about design and engineering changes on streets in retail areas that make pedestrians safer there and encourage more of them. Sidewalk aesthetics "help set the identity for your city," and showed familiar images of downtown streets in Grand Rapids where there are pedestrian benches and sidewalks wide enough for outdoor café tables.

Green vegetation in the form of trees and planters is "a signature element now" in many urban areas, including Michigan Avenue in Chicago, he said. Petko said that in the past, landscape architects were often "accused of planting a $500 tree in a $5 hole," with the result being that many of the trees planted along city streets did not survive.

Now the holes are much larger and the soil used is carefully prepared for maintaining a healthy, growing tree.

Petko said another new feature on the horizon are "green streets" that help reduce storm runoff that often overwhelms both storm and septic sewers, flushing raw sewage and polluted water into rivers and streams. On a green street, storm runoff on the street and sidewalks is funneled into planters that are essentially openings next to the sidewalk, with vegetation growing in them that can withstand the chemical pollution in the runoff. The planters can be linked together in a series so that runoff all along the street ends up flowing through all the planters, and studies have shown that up to 20 or 25 percent of the runoff will seep into the ground under the planters, before reaching the storm drains.

The Muskegon Area Chamber's next member forum on transportation enhancements to the main business corridor through greater Muskegon will be at 8 a.m. Dec. 3.

The focus will be on the north side of Muskegon up the Whitehall Road as it passes Michigan’s Adventure, an area deemed to be a growing statewide destination for family entertainment. The meeting will reveal a proposed master plan created in partnership with the surrounding municipalities. Larsen said it is especially important for newly elected township officials to attend.

“The more educated we can become on the land use vision for Muskegon area development," said Larsen, "the easier it will be to attract quality projects along this important corridor."

For more information about the Dec. 3 forum, log on to the Chamber Web site at www.muskegon.org or call (231) 722-3751.

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