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South Beltline Overview

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SOUTH BELTLINE OVERVIEW: Many welcome freeway, but critics warn that just for short haul

Sunday, November 14, 2004

By Ted Roelofs

The Grand Rapids Press

While he watched from his back yard as the $700 million South Beltline took shape, John Gorman added up the pluses.

It will shave precious minutes off trips from his Gaines Township home east to visit his wife's family in Ionia County. He will zip faster north to his job as a resident physician at Spectrum Health Butterworth Campus.

Then there are the minuses.

"We are really anxious about what kind of noise there will be," he said, looking up at the freeway that looms above his house.

"If there was an accident, how close would that get to my yard?"

He also wonders about traffic on Kalamazoo Avenue.

"I am worried about trying to take a left-hand turn out of my subdivision. I guess there's good things and bad things about it."

Nearby, the intersection of Kalamazoo and 68th Street SE exhibits suburban sprawl.

Strip malls hug Kalamazoo on both sides of the freeway. A new Bob Evans restaurant looks across the street at a Wendy's. Plans call for a 16-screen movie theater, and Meijer is building a new store on the east side of Kalamazoo.

Stall or sprawl

It's the classic tradeoff of many freeway projects.

It is indisputable the 20-mile stretch will cut drive time, and that will save gas. It should ease traffic on east-west roads like 44th Street. Businesses expect more efficient shipping and a better bottom line.

Critics call it a temporary fix for a culture addicted to cars. Indeed, some assert it promotes the very problem it is intended to solve.

"Those decisions about the South Beltline were made 20 years ago," said Keith Schneider, deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in northwest Michigan. "I think Grand Rapids is building a past-century project that will create next century's problem."

Over time, Schneider said, the freeway will entice more people to live farther from the heart of the metropolitan area. Exits will fill with stores. As subdivisions rise 15 miles, 20 miles, then 25 miles from Grand Rapids, people will spend more time in their cars getting to work. They will use more gas. Eventually, the South Beltline will be clogged with traffic.

By pushing the economic center of gravity out from Grand Rapids, Schneider maintains it will undercut redevelopment in the heart of the city.

"Growth follows investment. This highway is the biggest public investment made in that region in history."

Gains and losses

Meanwhile, proponents expect the freeway will help the private sector keep a competitive edge. "It adds up to money," said Jeanne Englehart, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Englehart said businesses along the southern corridor should get a boost from lower transportation costs and easier access.

"It's been a vital link that has been missing in our community," she said.

She does not buy the argument that it spells trouble for the metro core: "As the region prospers, Grand Rapids will just naturally prosper."

Before the project gained the dollars and political momentum it would need to break ground, there were dire warnings. In 1975, Grand Rapids planning director Richard Fosmoen called it "a tremendous waste of the area's resources." Kentwood planner David Bisbee called it a "waste of money."

Experts then predicted it could cost much as $100 million. That's about $240 million in today's dollars -- less than one-third of its actual cost.

As an alternative to highways, Schneider and others continue to call for a light-rail corridor that would entice commuters to leave their cars at home.

He notes that voters in the Denver area just approved a $4.7 billion measure to add six metro rail lines. The rail lines are aimed at reducing traffic congestion and air pollution -- two of the region's biggest headaches.

Though rail is a distant dream, advocates like U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, think it could make perfect sense in 15 years. The proposed corridors would parallel U.S. 131 and Int. 196.

Uphill climb

But with a cost estimated at $100 million to $2 billion, there's no hint of money coming from Capitol Hill.

And since the freeway system is relatively free of gridlock, gas might have to hit $4 or $5 a gallon before motorists decide to give up their cars for public transit. And they would need a system that for now is not even on the drawing board.

A few miles to the west of John Gorman's home in Gaines Township, there is nothing left of the Byron Township home of Grand Rapids Fire Department lieutenant Ron Sabin.

Sabin, 43, is philosophical about how things worked out.

"I think everything happened for a reason," Sabin said.

He recalled that state transportation officials at first proposed buying up part of his back yard for the exit ramp at U.S. 131 and the South Beltline.

"We had a pool in our back yard, and they were going to start the grade in the middle of the pool."

Eventually, the Michigan Department of Transportation relented and agreed to buy his house. But Sabin said it took a while to get the price they needed to buy a comparable house.

"I wouldn't wish this on anybody. They come in and are very cold. They come and they have a job to do, I suppose, as cheaply as they can."

Sabin and his wife, Melanie, 37, now live in a Byron Township subdivision southwest of their old home. She's closer to her job as an elementary school teacher.

As for the freeway itself, Sabin can't wait. "It's going to be great. It's 30 years overdue," he said.

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