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MDOT unveils early plans for M-231, the new U.S. 31 bypass


WEST OLIVE — Preliminary plans for the new M-231/U.S. 31 bypass were on display for public viewing Wednesday night, but local residents and business owners are still wondering the same things they did the last time a bypass was brought up — how much of their property is needed, how much will the state pay for it, and when?

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"Who wants a highway in their yard?" asked Jeannie Marcus, who lives on 120th Avenue off Sleeper Street in Robinson Township. "We just bought the property two years ago and totally remodeled our house."

Marcus said she and her husband, David, approached township officials before they purchased the house and were told not to worry because the bypass project was far from happening anytime soon.

But during the two years they have lived there, planners were still working on the project, conducting an Environmental Impact Statement which helps determine how much property will be needed for the new road.

The EIS determines what the environmental impact for this project will be, from how many wetlands to how much farm land will be affected. The decade-long study is nearing completion for 2007, and will then need approval from the Federal Highway Administration before the design and property acquisition phase of the project can begin.

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Jeannie Marcus said she's not happy that her walking route will be affected, as she will now have to cross the new M-231, but said she understands a new river crossing is needed nearby.

David Marcus seemed thrilled with the idea of not having to drive through Grand Haven to cross the Grand River.

"We love that," he said. "It's going to be a big plus."

Most people at the meeting would agree that the Tri-Cities needs another river crossing, as there are only three bridges over the Grand River in Ottawa County, compared to 20 bridges over the river in Kent County, according to Michigan Department of Transportation Grand Region planner Dennis Kent.

Kent said the new state highway "has its own utility. It's not a replacement for U.S. 31."

Eve Marcum owns 10 acres on Sleeper Street in Robinson Township. From the way she interpreted the map of her neighborhood, the new road will run right through her property.

"I think it's great for the community," she said. "The unfortunate thing is I'm out of here. I'm gonna have to move."

Crockery Township Supervisor Leon Stille also came to the meeting to check out the new highway. He agreed that it's unfortunate that homes and farms will be affected by the new road, but understands the need for another bridge.

"Nobody wants roads, sewer systems, landfills," he said.

Stille, who owns property on both sides of the Grand River, said the bridge will be a "godsend" to him. He said it would offer a reprieve from traffic backups in Grand Haven during the summer.

"We've all gone through summer and fall construction season in Grand Haven," he said.

Current proposed route

The current proposed state highway stands at just over seven miles long. It would run parallel to the west side of 120th Avenue from M-45 in Robinson Township north to M-104 near I-96 in Crockery Township.

The bridge over the Grand River will be 45 feet high off the river from the bottom of the bridge, and will be aesthetically designed to meet its surroundings, said Dawn Garner, an MDOT communications representative.

The project would also include widening M-104 east of 124th Avenue to a five-lane, boulevard-style road to meet traffic needs closer to I-96.

The plan also includes other limited improvements along the existing U.S. 31 in Grand Haven and Holland. In Grand Haven, an extra traffic lane would be added to Beacon Boulevard, in each direction, between Jackson Street and Washington Avenue.

In Crockery Township, improvements would be made near the intersection of 112th Avenue and M-104.

Road improvements also would be made between Lakewood Boulevard and Quincy Street in the Holland area.

What happened to the original bypass plans?

The original $1 billion project, which had been in talks for years, proposed a four-lane highway stretching from I-196 near Holland north through Ottawa County, over the Grand River, and connecting to I-96 in Nunica.

But as MDOT realized state and federal funding for the project would fall short to meet those plans, a shorter alternative route was brought to the table.

Last year, MDOT hosted more than 15 meetings with over 100 people from local agencies located in the corridor influence area to review local and state priorities, and the needs of the new route. Those meetings helped determine the new preferred alternative segments, which were part of the original proposed project.

The latest version of the plan is considered a priority segment by MDOT because of its inclusion of another river crossing.

The state transportation agency still has its eye on a larger bypass, as originally planned, but a project of that magnitude is far into the future and is not being focused on right now, MDOT officials said. Eventually, when more money is available, plans for a larger extended version of the bypass could come up again, officials said.

For now, MDOT hopes to acquire enough property so that down the road it can extend or widen M-231 if needed, and should funding for it become available.

The new route will initially be constructed as a two-lane highway, with enough property acquired as a limited access right of way for future expansion to a four-lane freeway.

What has the Environmental Impact Statement determined?

The EIS shows approximately 4.39 acres of wetlands will be impacted by the proposed project. Nearly 15 acres of prime farmland and 124.81 acres of other farmland also will be impacted.

Building the highway will include 99 full displacements and 40 partial displacements. There will be two major stream crossings, with one natural area site affected. There are also 17 potentially contaminated sites within proximity to the new route.

Based on the value of a dollar in 2004, construction costs will top $114 million, with $30 million to $40 million used for bridge construction. Nearly $30 million in additional funds will go towards right of way and relocation costs.

As it stands, the estimated cost of the project adds up to nearly $150 million.

What will happen next?

The final EIS should be federally approved in the middle of next year. Upon federal approval, MDOT will begin design and engineering steps towards the bypass segment, using federal funds earmarked by U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, that will be matched by the state's Michigan Jobs Today program.

The design process will include detailed right of way plans and property acquisitions, expected to begin in 2007 or 2008. Currently, MDOT is working towards purchasing seven flood-damaged parcels in Robinson Township, which the state agency finds critical to the construction of a new bridge.

Once the design and property acquisition phase is completed, MDOT will then be in a position to begin construction of the highway. A time frame for completing construction will depend on revenue available to MDOT at that time, but construction is expected to take about five years.

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