Left: Underneath the US 31 Drawbridge in Grand Haven.
The recent imbroglio over the "Turtle Fence" on U.S. 31 here in Muskegon, MI has brought to light an issue I evolved a lot on over the years: infrastructure. Rep. Pete Hoekstra recently railed against the $318,000 Turtle Fence designed to protect turtles which migrate across the highway as it passes through the Muskegon River lowlands. Really, this type of thing does not upset me. In fact, I think it will be a growing trend, and a fence is cheaper than other solutions being proposed to protect wildlife.
Living in Grand Haven, the limits of our current infrastructure are an on-going concern. In Ottawa County, there are only three bridges crossing a major river (The Grand). Grand Haven has one bridge, the US 31 drawbridge, and on some days, it can be a nightmare. There is a proposal to build a bypass, but its has been in the works for nearly two decades. I have been marginally involved in seeing its planning, as a reporter and as an employee of Ottawa County.
Despite those who would rather see the Turtle Fence than the US 31 Bypass (here), I would have liked to have seen a new bridge completed years ago. At some point, the lack of a second bridge could become a major detriment to the local economy here. While the growth has slowed due to the housing crash, things will bounce back. A return to increased growth will bring back the traffic. Someday, the drawbridge will become a severe disincentive to visiting or living in the area.
I doubt the delay in the US 31 bypass is a unique situation. In fact, I think the lack of investment in repairing old infrastructure and creating new infrastructure is endemic. The Mississippi River bridge collapse was a wake-up call. As Nicole Gelinas points out (here), we are wasting our inheritance.
There are many culprits in this lack of attention to our infrastructure, funding is one. The focus on earmarks has led to infrastructure investment, but many of these are poorly-justified pork projects. I've seen the earmark process at work. During the last transportation bill, every house district was promised funding for "high priority projects." Hoekstra was taking applications for these projects from local and county governments. While Hoekstra did secure some funding for the bypass (as an earmark), I find the whole system to be a farce. Why is each congressman deciding which specific projects get funding? This mentality led to the "Porkbuster" revolt. I believe sensible allocation of funding is needed to truly begin addressing infrastructure problems.
Even if the funding issue is solved, more reform is needed before we begin building new roads in a timely fashion. The NEPA/404 law is a major obstacle in the road planning and building process. It has tipped the balance too much toward the environment and does not take economic needs into account enough. It requires too much public input and too much study, drawing out the process and making it more expensive. We do not need to stop building roads, we need better ways of integrating roads with their surroundings (such as turtle fences). But, the NEPA/404 process bogs down everything and limits options for placing road in a locations that make sense. Locally, I know the Village of Spring Lake has called for a bypass and bridge closer to current drawbridge, but MDOT says it is impossible due to the wetlands. If we allocated some money toward investigating better technology for building roads and better ways or mitigating wetland and wildlife impacts, I think we would be much better off than what we have been given by the NEPA/404 law. I've watched it in action, it is a convoluted and frustrating process.
It's a gloomy situation. I've sat through County Road Commission and seen them wring their hands over the many needs they can only marginally adress with strained funding. I've also seen how road investment can improve safety and the look of a whole town (M-45 in Allendale is a wonderful example). But that type of improvement is not frequent enough.
Fix the roads. Build new roads. As Glenn Reynolds would say, faster please.
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