Old Mission Peninsula's Road Woes
By Beth Milligan | Nov. 11, 2020
A combination of high water levels, record rainfall, and hilly terrain has led to road erosion and washout closures across Old Mission Peninsula, a costly phenomenon also plaguing other parts of the region and leaving the future of some local roads – like Bluff Road – unclear.
Grand Traverse County Road Commission (GTCRC) Manager Brad Kluczynski estimates 16 different road sites have been impacted on Old Mission this year, with repair costs climbing to an estimated $150,000. In recent weeks, a culvert failed on Neahtawanta Road, opening up a gaping chasm in the roadway between Bowers Harbor and Kroupa roads. Hard rains caused hillsides to give way on Smokey Hollow Road between Center and Boursaw roads and on Center Road across from Little Fox Farm. In both cases, erosion left steep, muddy drop-offs dangling inches from the roadway. Meanwhile, multiple sections of Peninsula Drive have been affected by washouts along West Grand Traverse Bay. The cumulative damage has caused road closures and detours at locations throughout the township.
GTCRC has repaired or is in the process of repairing most of the above sites, including installing a new widened culvert at Neahtawanta Road in conjunction with Team Elmer’s and implementing erosion control measures at Smokey Hollow Road. As of Tuesday, work still needed to be completed at the Center Road site, and crews were finishing up repairs on Peninsula Drive. Kluczynski says weather conditions this year have affected not only Old Mission Peninsula – where hilly terrain surrounding interior roads and close proximity to rising lake levels on exterior roads pose a double threat – but areas across the region.
“We have had other erosion issues on hills all over the county,” Kluczynski says. “It’s a matter of the high water level…it’s not just the lake, but what’s in the ground. There is no place to put the water, so the soil isn’t draining. When you get a six-inch rain event, there’s nowhere for it to go. There isn’t anything built anywhere here with a six-inch-rainfall-in-five-hours event in mind. We can’t afford to build things across the board to that standard. We can just get them fixed as soon as we can.”
Other local leaders have reiterated Kluczynski’s words, including in the City of Traverse City, where staff and commissioners have worked to address sewage overflow issues caused by numerous historic rain events deluding aging infrastructure not built to handle such massive influxes within short periods of time. With climate change expected to continue impacting water levels and rain events, leaders are now grappling with how to address not just short-term fixes but long-term infrastructure solutions. That debate is affecting one Peninsula Township road in particular – Bluff Road – where a half-mile section could cost millions of dollars to repair, raising the question of whether the road is worth saving given likely costly investments for decades to come.
Bluff Road has been closed for nearly a year between Boursaw and Blue Water roads due to high lake levels that have eaten away at the shoreline next to the pavement, threatening to collapse the road. The closure requires detours around the stretch on either end. Homeowners in the area have expressed frustration about losing water, beach, and parking access along Bluff Road due to the closure – issues they believe are affecting their property values – while Peninsula Township Fire Chief Fred Gilstorff has shared concerns about delayed access for emergency responders.
In a recent memo to Township Supervisor Rob Manigold, Gilstorff wrote that rerouting emergency vehicles in the area could add anywhere from two to five minutes when responding to calls. “Any delays in responding can severely affect the crew’s ability to help a patient have a successful outcome after experiencing a medical emergency,” he wrote. Gilstorff added that the Bluff Road closure could also delay getting water quickly to fire sites, threatening more severe damage to properties.
However, the timing of when Bluff Road will be repaired – if it even can be repaired – and who will pay for it remains an open question. Kluczynski estimates the project could cost $2.5 million, and says GTCRC doesn’t have nearly that level of funding available to fix a road that sees less than 200 cars a day. Kluczynski says that because Bluff Road is a local road, Peninsula Township would normally be required to contribute a 75 percent match toward the project costs. That match would typically be covered through a special assessment district levied against property owners in the area, according to Manigold, but neither the township nor homeowners have expressed a willingness to contribute to repairs they see as being the responsibility of GTCRC.
“It probably will be very expensive,” Manigold acknowledges of repairs, “but if the road commission had done something sooner, we wouldn’t be in this situation.” Manigold believes that GTCRC could have responded earlier last fall when the road was first flagged as a problem site, implementing erosion control measures – as the road commission has done on other township roads – that could have staved off worse damage. “It’s not fair that everyone else gets their roads fixed, and the people on Bluff Road are stuck with a huge bill,” Manigold says.
For Kluczynski’s part, he notes that GTCRC has picked up the bill for many road fixes where Peninsula Township was supposed to contribute but hasn’t, and says the road commission is committed to working with residents on a Bluff Road solution. That could include providing some type of local-only access while continuing to ban thru-traffic, though dead-ending the road and turning it into a cul-de-sac has also been discussed. The main challenge is that fixing Bluff will require complex engineering due to its proximity to the water – including obtaining water permits – and is challenging to access, with steep hills approaching from the top and bottom and the road unable to bear heavy equipment without potentially collapsing. GTCRC has retained the services of a coastal engineer to begin analyzing the site, but Kluczynski says it could still be several months before a solution is proposed – with state funding likely needed to tackle any significant repairs.
“I understand the frustration (of residents), and I would be upset too if I couldn’t use my dock,” he says. “But we don’t have 100 percent control over it. People have to understand it’s not a 15-minute solution.” In other parts of Michigan, Kluczynski says, communities have permanently closed or abandoned coastal roads facing persistent erosion challenges like Bluff.
“That includes MDOT (the Michigan Department of Transportation), and they have bigger pockets than everybody else,” he says. “There are times when Mother Nature comes in and takes so much out that you can’t put it back to be a road anymore. At what point do you keep putting money in and in when Mother Nature is overwhelming your capabilities?” Kluczynski adds: “We are going to do everything we can to get (Bluff Road) fixed. But at some point you might have to say, 'This is the best we can do.'”
Pictured, clockwise from top left: Center Road, Smokey Hollow Road, cracking on Bluff Road, road closure sign on Bluff Road