Roadblock to growth

The state’s January announcement that it would not be extending the U.S. 131 freeway from Manton to Kalkaska in the “foreseeable future” certainly puts our region in the back seat in terms of long-term economic development.

Over the next couple of years, the state will drop $117 million to extend the freeway from south of Cadillac to north of Manton and stop there. The decision to not bring the freeway any farther north is based on a study that concluded that “while the region would benefit from the proposed freeway, the shift on in-state economic activity would not be an efficient statewide economic investment.”

The U.S. 131 corridor study from Kalkaska to I-75, which included five possible corridors of connection, is also being discontinued.

For those not familiar with the issue, a little background: In 1995, MDOT received approval from the Federal Highway Administration to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on the portion of U.S. 131 from north of Manton to north of Kalkaska. Several alternatives were developed, public meetings were held and an economic study was prepared.

State Transportation Director James DeSana said the results of the study “have made other transportation opportunities more viable in northwest Michigan.”

These “opportunities” include the M-72 corridor between Acme and Grayling. MDOT plans to add more passing lanes, create four lanes in some areas and make intersection improvements, which may include a way to get traffic through Kalkaska on M-72 without it hooking up with 131 in town.

We at The Business News certainly don’t dispute the importance of fixing up M-72 or making improvements on 131. But we do feel MDOT needs to at least keep the door ajar on the possibility of extending 131 down the road. Our region needs good roads, particularly for our two largest industries: tourism and agriculture. Concluding that traffic north of Manton “doesn’t justify a freeway in the foreseeable future” leaves northern Michigan out in the cold.

The state’s decision largely impacts the village of Kalkaska, where U.S. 131 is called Cedar Street and is the village’s main thoroughfare. Several merchants front Cedar, but there doesn’t seem to be a general consensus among them as to what would be best for business.

Some owners would like to see the freeway extended and continue right on into Kalkaska to keep up the traffic count. Others want to see the freeway extended to Kalkaska, but not into it.

According to village president Jeff Fitch, many residents favor a bypass–similar to the one being built around Cadillac–that would filter out the drivers who want to come into Kalkaska and those who want to continue on to other destinations, like Traverse City, Petoskey or the U.P.

Besides the dangers of some 15,000 cars whizzing through the town each day, Fitch pointed out that the current highway does not leave ample room for parking. There are only two city blocks on the highway in which to park, and that certainly doesn’t help draw in customers.

“There’s so much traffic it’s not easy to stop at businesses,” he commented. “So, we’re obviously not going to get people pulling over and stopping and running into a business. It keeps a lot of people from coming in.”

Cadillac already has more on-street parking on U.S. 131 than Kalkaska as it is.

With Kalkaska in the throes of planning a 28-acre, 12-lot industrial park, there will be even more trucks lumbering up and down the highway. And more big rigs on Cedar Street can’t be good for merchants trying to attract patrons.

No one can deny that Kalkaska County is a manufacturing giant. According to 1996 state figures, 23 manufacturers employed 1,159 and had an annual income of $32 million. The population is increasing, as well. In 1995, county population increased 8.8 percent over 1990 and is projected to be at 17,100 in five years.

We credit MDOT for the number of major road improvements it has slated for the next five years: the extension of U.S. 131 from south of Cadillac to north of Manton; the resurfacing of over 27 miles of U.S. 131 in Antrim, Kalkaska and Osceola counties; as well as intersection improvements and possibly wider shoulders on the section of the freeway from north of Manton to M-113.

However, for the welfare of business and industry in Kalkaska County and our entire expanding region, we think the state needs to keep the 131 extension issue in the front seat of its long-range road plans.

What do you think?

Send letters to the editor by March 10 for the April issue. To be considered for publication, the letter must include a name, address and daytime phone number.

Send to: The Business News, Letter to the Editor, 800 Hastings St., Ste. E, Traverse City, MI 49686; fax 929-7914 or e-mail biznews@traverse.com.

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