Critical congestion study gets city dollars

August 1, 2011
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A study proposed last fall to ease traffic congestion on an approximately one-mile stretch of Michigan Street NE became reality last week when Grand Rapids city commissioners allocated $20,000 to start the work’s pre-planning stage.

“I think we’re laying the groundwork here for all the things we will be doing in the city,” said Commissioner Ruth Kelly.

City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz first proposed the study last September as a way to alleviate congestion along the Medical Mile, which has drawn about $1 billion in health care developments over the past few years. The new developments have brought increased traffic to the sector of Michigan Street roughly between Bostwick to Fuller avenues, and the congestion has spilled over into the residential areas to the north and south. Schulz said the intersection that needs the most relief is the corner of Michigan and College Avenue.

But Schulz pointed out last week that the study is about more than easing the bottleneck. She said it’s also about planning for future transportation issues, guaranteeing access to employment centers, and making sure that limited urban land is used appropriately. She said this study is a one-of-a-kind task because of its goals, and she noted that completing it is a top priority for the city.

“If we don’t figure this out, transportation will fail and there won’t be another $1 billion invested there,” said Schulz. “We need to do some improvements, but what improvements do we need to make?”

The $20,000 commissioners allocated will allow her to begin asking her key questions. “We need to put that money in it now to get the project going,” said Schulz.

A steering committee established by the city for the study chose WilburSmith Associates Inc., LSL Planning Inc., Progressive AE, Project Innovations Inc. and SmartMobility as its team of consultants, following a request for proposals that was issued in April. Only SmartMobility hasn’t previously worked on a city-sponsored project.

“This project is so critical for that corridor,” said Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss.

Schulz said the cost for the pre-planning and phase-one stages of the work will total $120,000. Grand Valley Metro Council has given the project $80,000 that it received from a federal grant. The city needs to match the grant with $20,000 for the council to collect it, but the council’s money won’t become available until after Sept. 1 and Schulz wants to get the pre-planning activities going so the public can become part of the process this fall.

“They’ve been fabulous to work with,” said Schulz of GVMC.

An estimate places the cost of the entire study at about $400,000 for now. Schulz said the project has drawn 14 funding sources. The Downtown Development Authority, Grand Rapids Community College, the city’s Parking Services Department, Spectrum Health, Michigan State University, GVMC and seven others have contributed.

“Today, we have 14 different funding sources for the project,” said Schulz. “It’s taken a year to get everyone on the same page.”

Schulz said she plans to use those contributions to leverage other funding, most notably a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She also said the Metro Council has a federal grant worth $1.6 million that it is holding to make physical improvements to the Michigan and College intersection. Schulz hopes the results of the fall’s study will give the city enough information so design elements and construction can get going by 2013.

“This is going to be really exciting,” she said.

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