US-131 between Wealthy Street and 28th Street in Grand Rapids. US-131 between Wealthy Street and 28th Street in Grand Rapids. COURTESY PHOTO

GR neighborhood pushes for less pollution, truck traffic from US-131

BY Sunday, March 27, 2022 06:49pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Synia Jordan is unimpressed with a Michigan Department of Transportation online survey that’s gathering public feedback about potentially changing US-131 between 28th Street and Wealthy Street. 

MDOT’s online survey, which is open through April 7, is part of a state planning and environmental linkages (PEL) study meant to identify environmental, community and economic goals as well as traffic issues early in the planning process. 

Discussions have taken place for decades over how the stretch of highway is unsafe and in need of upgrades or changes. The segment carries more traffic than any other freeway in West Michigan, and the Wealthy Street interchange is known as the most dangerous intersection in the state.

Jordan lives and owns a business in the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood, a narrow stretch of land immediately west of US-131 that spans nearly the entire survey area between Wealthy and 28th Street. She wants to see the study produce results that make her community more walkable and safe from traffic that causes congestion and pollution as trucks barrel through her community to get on and off US-131.

“I’m not sure what that would look like, but it needs to be something that would slow down the traffic,” said Jordan, who also serves as chairperson of the Southwest Business Association. “MDOT needs to show up and have conversations with people who live here. I just started having conversations with (MDOT), but it wasn’t because they reached out to me.”

The timeline for upgrading or potentially redesigning US-131 is reliant on state funding, but the window is steadily closing as the highway remains largely untouched since it was constructed in the 1960s.

The Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association board plans to meet with MDOT officials about the PEL study to examine different options, said association Executive Director Amy Brower. Community organizers hope MDOT can speak about the technical aspects of proposed closures of on and off ramps along US-131 and what that would mean for local communities, Brower said.

“There is still not a lot included in the survey,” Brower said. “One thing that we definitely would like to see out of the redesign is a way that trucks could access the highway without interacting as much with our neighborhood. Overall, we want to see a reduction in truck traffic.”

The online survey allows people to rate and comment on different design strategies, including adding lanes, improving shoulders, enhancing existing local street connections, adding new local street connections and improving intersection designs for truck movement. 

“We don’t have a lot of detailed designs worked out,” MDOT Transportation Planner Dennis Kent said during a virtual meeting on March 15. “Soon we will have some designs that show different options. This is an ongoing process, and as we get things available and work through options, we will get things posted on the (MDOT) website and we’ll keep adding information as the process moves forward.” 

When MDOT officials were asked about any plans to reroute through-traffic around the city to improve air quality, Kent said the agency’s goal is to make traffic operations as efficient as possible.

“Most of the traffic on US-131, significantly over half, wants to be in and around Grand Rapids, and that’s probably going to increase as development and redevelopment increases downtown,” Kent said.



Neighborhood concern

The Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association has been working for years to reduce traffic through the community. Neighborhood leaders worked with the city of Grand Rapids to amend the city’s truck route ordinance in 2019 and downgrade Grandville Avenue — recently renamed Cesar E. Chavez Avenue SW — from a truck route to a major road. This means trucks must use Godfrey Avenue or Century Avenue instead of Grandville Avenue, unless they are making local deliveries.

The city added some signage but did not notify trucking companies, resulting in little change since the ordinance was amended, Brower said. 

“This community has been disinvested for a long time when it comes to the health impact from trucks,” Jordan said. “My building shatters from trucks coming up Rumsey Street going to US-131, and this is a consistent pattern.”

The neighborhood association has partnered with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and Southwest Business Association to study traffic along Grandville Avenue and notify trucking companies of alternative routes they should be using. A traffic study conducted by the business forum found an average of 56 trucks traveling on Grandville Avenue during the day, and only 17 percent stopped to make a local delivery.

“There is still a lot of work to be done, and we want the city to support the work we’re doing — that’s not a request, that’s an expectation,” Jordan said. “Those are our tax dollars.” 

The neighborhood’s decadeslong concerns over truck traffic and air pollution should create more community control over a solution, Synia said.

“It’s typically white consultants coming into our communities, and they totally don’t represent what the community looks like at all,” Jordan said. “The people in the community need to have more control over what happens and get paid for it, not the same consultant team. We’re tired of this.” 

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