Snyder Swipes at Bike/Pedestrian Bridge in Gov. Debate

Walking the walk on walkability?
Walking the walk on walkability?

Last night’s gubernatorial debate squeezed all Michigan’s challenges into scarcely an hour of airtime, but Ann Arbor Republican candidate Rick Snyder still found time to target a local bike/pedestrian bridge as an example of wasteful transportation spending.

Snyder’s comments are especially disappointing because his “ten-point plan for reinventing Michigan” calls for “walkable cities”- boasting “green infrastructure” and high “quality of place” – as a strategy for retaining young professionals and re-energizing the state’s economy.

Asked if he’d support increasing Michigan’s gas tax, given that the state has the nation’s worst-maintained roads, Snyder said no, “because we need to get efficient first” with the state’s existing transportation funds. (That opinion is sure to irk Carmine Palombo, transportation chief for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, who has repeatedly stressed that the gas tax, last raised in 1997, is woefully inadequate to fix Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure.)

Location of new bridge (purple) across US-23 at Geddes.
Location of new bridge (purple) across US-23 at Geddes.

Snyder cited a pedestrian and bicycle bridge near his Ann Arbor home as an example of inefficient spending.

“I live near Geddes Road and US-23,” Snyder said. “They just built a bike and pedestrian bridge across US-23 at the cost of millions of dollars. What they didn’t bother to tell us is a quarter-mile south, there’s a bridge over the Huron River and there’s a bike and pedestrian path there. So let’s get efficient about where we’re deploying these dollars. There’s a much better way to do things, and that’s what we should focus on first.”

Snyder implied that the new bridge simply replicated an existing facility. He also implied that funds spent to build it could have gone to fix aging, structurally deficient bridges over Ann Arbor’s Stadium Boulevard. Both contentions are misguided.

The bicycle and pedestrian bridge is part of a larger project at the US-23/Geddes Road interchange at the eastern edge of Ann Arbor, which also includes roundabouts and a multi-use path. A grant from the Federal Highway Adminstration’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program made the project possible. It’s unlikely that the Stadium Bridges would have qualified for such a grant, so Snyder can’t reasonably suggest that the money for the US-23 bridge could have been directed there instead.

The bridge will close gap in existing facilities.
The bridge will close gap in existing facilities.

In addition, far from replicating an existing facility, the new bridge will close an important gap in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti bicycle and pedestrian network. The US-23 interchange at Geddes previously lacked bicycle and pedestrian facilities, despite the fact that for much of northeast Ann Arbor, Geddes is the most direct connection from much of northeast Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, Washtenaw Community College, and the Huron River Border-to-Border Trail. Bridging the gap at US-23 will allow users to make that connection without doubling back a mile to cross the river at Huron Parkway. As shown above, the existing Dixboro Road pedestrian/bicycle connection across the Huron has limited utility right now, since it doesn’t traverse the freeway into Ann Arbor proper.

In Snyder’s business language, the new bridge (shown in red) will allow a much greater return on prior investment.

Snyder is surely correct that inefficiencies exist in state transportation policy. But why target a much-needed bike/pedestrian bridge, when the state is spending far more colossal sums to widen roads across the state? We know from experience that expanding road capacity will only bring more congestion. Highway widening isn’t just wasteful: it ultimately worsens the problem it’s intended to fix. You’d think a candidate who favors walkable cities, and opposes the crippling spread of urban sprawl, would see the need to link Washtenaw County’s two biggest towns with bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and see the foolishness of so many other more expensive roadway projects.

Perhaps Snyder’s comments represented some red meat thrown at the Republican base, which still doubts his credentials as a social conservative. As this site has noted, while other states’ GOP candidates for governor have crusaded against bicycles and high-speed rail, Snyder has offered some guarded support for reforming transportation policy.

It’s unfortunate that neither Snyder nor Democratic opponent Virg Bernero managed to get in a word about reconstructing Michigan’s public transit systems, which would create thousands of jobs and bring substantial new investment while protecting the environment. But Snyder’s shot at the bicycle and pedestrian bridge is particularly unfortunate.

“One tough nerd” should know better.