The Grand Rapids Planning Commission is in support of an expanded study regarding the future of U.S. 131.
The Michigan Department of Transportation is currently undertaking a $1 million study of portions of U.S. 131 and I-96, which it said is focused on preservation but does not include consideration of any major overhauls or changes to the roadway.
The stretch of U.S. 131 included in the study runs between 100th Street and M-57.
City planners adopted a resolution last week encouraging MDOT to expand its study to include environmental, economic and social impacts of the current highway location, as well as alternative scenarios that could include turning the portion of the highway running through downtown Grand Rapids into a boulevard or reconstructing it so that it runs beneath the city.
The Planning Commission also is asking MDOT to consider local, national and global trends influencing modern highway design and investment in considering the future of U.S. 131.
MDOT has said there is not enough money available to expand its study.
Kyle Van Strien, vice chair of the planning commission, proposed the resolution.
“As a planning commissioner and as a resident of this city, we definitely have a responsibility to think far in advance and think about what are the ramifications of the decisions we are making today,” Van Strien said. “There is significant money being invested in the maintenance of this infrastructure and, financially speaking, there may be better options for us.”
He said the city is currently invested in two important planning efforts — the Downtown Plan and the River Corridor Plan — both of which could be impacted by the future of U.S. 131.
“We’ve seen studies of downtown highways throughout the country and around the world that have done just that; they’ve considered five or six different options and they’ve looked at the economic, environmental and social impacts of those different outcomes,” he said. “In some cases the status quo is what they determined is best for the city and the people, and other times they went a different route.
“With an 18-month study, it just seems reasonable that we would look into some other options.”
MDOT has not provided an estimate for how much the expanded study would cost.
The agency also said any major overhaul or change to U.S. 131 would require collaboration with several other organizations.
“To make a major change to U.S. 131 from a freeway to something other than a freeway will require looking at transit options — what would happen to the city street grid and the county roads,” said Dennis Kent, MDOT planner. “We don’t have the money to do anything right now other than preservation.”
Kent emphasized there is not even enough money in the budget for all the roadway preservation needed for the state’s current infrastructure.
“The city and MDOT are both looking at what our current funding is, and there is certainly not enough money to be able to take on 131 in a comprehensive study, nor is there any money to do anything with whatever the study might recommend as far as actions and improvements to 131,” said Suzanne Schultz, city planning director. “Really, we need to focus on the here and now and the current state of our roads, road funding and the crisis that we have.”
Van Strien said he believes there are enough stakeholders in the city who would be willing to fund an expanded study and that MDOT should provide residents with the opportunity to raise the money needed for a comprehensive study.
“I do think there are plenty of stakeholders that would see value in understanding the full cost of ongoing maintenance of the highway or other possible outcomes,” he said.
“That is why we passed the resolution because they don’t appear to want to know, and we want to know. I think it’s important for taxpayers to understand how their money is being spent and (for) the residents of Grand Rapids to have a voice in that infrastructure.”