New freight plan to guide policy on transportation, bicycles, pedestrian traffic and more

Northwest Lower Michigan is getting its first-ever freight plan, a big-picture strategy that could affect how goods are moved into, out of, and throughout the region in the future whether by highway, rail, air or water.

The document, compiled by Networks Northwest and its Traverse Transportation Coordinating Initiative (TTCI) program, was drafted based on survey responses from more than two dozen local businesses and freight providers.

According to Networks Northwest Community Planner Mathew Cooke, who helped spearhead the survey, the goal of the freight plan is to prepare Traverse City and the rest of northern Michigan for its next stage of population growth and economic expansion.

“The freight plan is part of our work in building toward a transition to a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO),” Cooke said.

An MPO is a federally mandated and federally funded transportation policy organization made up of local governments and governmental transportation authorities, such as Bay Area Transit Authority (BATA).

MPOs are federally required in all urbanized areas that have a population of more than 50,000 people. Cooke says that Traverse City nearly hit that benchmark based on the 2010 Census and is expected to be well over the line when numbers come back from the 2020 Census.

If the region does cross that boundary, the event will trigger the creation of an MPO, which will be charged with carrying out the metropolitan transportation planning process for Traverse City and the northern Michigan region as a whole.

Cooke sees the freight plan as an early foundation to the work that the designated Traverse City Small Urban Area MPO will do once it is formed. The plan, he says, “is ideally the start to a transportation plan that will be further developed as the MPO takes form.”

Such a transportation plan would serve “as a guiding policy document for transportation investments” in the area – not just in regard to freight, but also public transportation, bicycles, pedestrian traffic and more.

In a big-picture sense, a freight plan is a strategy that outlines current freight-related challenges and potential solutions for establishing a more efficient, safe and cost-effective way of transporting goods into, out of or around a region.

In its Michigan “Freight Primer” document, Michigan’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) states that “an efficient and well-maintained transportation system serves as the backbone for all economic activity.”

Freight planning, MDOT continues, is an “important component of the statewide and metropolitan planning process,” and a crucial response to “existing market forces, rising fuel prices and other factors that will increase the cost of moving goods” in the future.

TTCI and Networks Northwest worked with area chambers of commerce, the Michigan Trucking Association and the Michigan Manufacturers Association to get its survey out to more than 150 businesses in the region. Those businesses spanned a variety of freight stakeholders, including trucking companies, orchards and farms, breweries, wineries, grocery stores, big box retailers, propane logistics companies and other entities whose operations hinge on the ability to import, export or transport goods in northern Michigan.

The survey received 26 responses – not quite as many as Cooke was hoping for but enough, he says, to give a sense of the challenges freight stakeholders are facing and where there might be room for improvement.

Freight is a big piece of the northwest Michigan economy. In 2018, the region tallied more than 7.1 million tons of freight commodities moving into, out of, and throughout the region, with a total value of $6.95 million.

Most of those commodities were moved on the region’s highways and roadways. Trucking accounted for more than 80% of the total freight value in 2018, with rail, marine, and air each accounting for much smaller portions of the local freight pie.

Key commodities moved by freight in the region include food, construction materials, petroleum, coal, agricultural products, machinery, transportation equipment, electrical equipment and manufacturing supplies.

True to northern Michigan’s road-skewed freight industry, 25 of the 26 companies that responded to the TTCI/Networks Northwest survey were on the trucking side of freight; the one outlier response came from a company focused on air freight.

The largest freight-related challenge identified by the survey was the overall geography of the region. Cooke notes that, while northwest Michigan spans thousands of square miles, the region does not directly have an interstate highway within its boundaries and is dotted by numerous large bodies of water. These factors make it relatively difficult for road freight drivers to navigate the region in a quick and productive way.

“The 10-county region here is very large,” Cooke said. “I was told once that it’s the size of Connecticut, so it’s actually really big – especially when you get to driving it. And then with features such as Torch Lake – it’s long, it’s big, there’s not really a good way to go around it. So those are big challenges.”

Other issues, such as road construction, roundabouts too small to maneuver easily in large trucks, and roadway congestion – particularly at bottleneck spots like the drawbridge in downtown Charlevoix – were also identified in the survey as hurdles for freight transportation.

A draft of the freight plan lists several specific roadways or traffic signals as spots where Networks Northwest could work with community road commissions and other players to make navigating the area easier for freight drivers. Suggestions specific to the Traverse City area include repaving roads that have fallen into disrepair (such as Townline and Cherry Bend roads); rethinking light timing in certain high-traffic spots (such as the junction at US-31 and M-72 and along Hammond Road); adding a roundabout at the intersection of Hammond and Townline roads; widening Three Mile Road between South Airport and Hammond roads to incorporate four lanes, bike lanes and left-turn lanes; strategizing new east-west routes across town; and building a limited access road or highway around the city’s urban core.

While it could be years before many or any of these infrastructure improvements occur, Cooke says having a freight plan in place is a positive step that could play an important long-term role in turning northwest Michigan into a more competitive, more productive and more environmentally-friendly region – not to mention one that is a little easier for everyone to get around.

“This is the first freight plan that we’ve had, so the idea is that this will be a good base, a good start, something that we’ll be able to build off of and enhance as the MPO takes form,” Cooke said. “We can come up with our own observations about this stuff, but getting input from people that actually drive on the roads and manage freight movement, that feedback is really valuable.”