City prepares to once again grapple with truck traffic issue

MARQUETTE – The Marquette City Commission is prepared to once again take up the issue of truck traffic in the city.

Years after the commission last addressed trucking routes through Marquette, the group gathered Thursday morning in response to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s recent decision to not permit the proposed Marquette County Road 595.

That road would have served as a more direct route for Rio Tinto to transport ore from its Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill.

In the wake of that decision, Rio Tinto has announced its intent to establish a haul route leading down County Road 550 and into the city of Marquette. From there, the trucks would travel down Sugarloaf Avenue and onto Wright Street, before heading into Marquette Township and U.S. 41.

During the special meeting, the commission requested city staff to begin negotiations with Rio Tinto, regarding improvements to the impacted city streets.

Matt Johnson, government and community relations manager for Rio Tinto, addressed the commission and recapped the mine’s history, which spans more than a decade.

“We tried very hard to find transportation alternatives,” he said. “This effort was in response to concerns the city had with existing truck traffic and in response to meetings we had with the city back in 2008.”

He said the preference was to avoid existing roads, and Rio Tinto completed an alternatives analysis study exploring rail options and several north-south routes. The company spent millions in first planning the Woodland Road and more recently supporting Marquette County’s attempt to build 595, Johnson said.

“All options have been considered,” he told the board. “There are no alternatives left.”

Commissioner Mike Coyne said he saw no legitimate alternatives to working with the company in an attempt to make the hauling process as painless as possible for city residents. However, he said he wanted to see a broader discussion about all truck traffic in the city as soon as possible.

“For the citizens, we can’t just pretend there is no problem,” Coyne said. “There is a problem there.”

Commissioner Don Ryan agreed, and praised the many groups that worked to find alternatives to the city route. Marquette has something of an obligation to come up with a plan for the increased truck traffic, he said.

The commission is concerned that such an increase in heavy truck traffic will require heavy road upgrades and will speed infrastructure degradation.

Johnson – who said Rio Tinto’s opinion is that taxpayers should not pay for any upgrades to the existing transportation infrastructure – told the commission that mine-related truck traffic should equal approximately 3 percent of the current traffic volume on Wright Street and would equate to approximately 20 percent of current commercial traffic there.

According to city staff, Marquette has plans to do construction on a number of the roads in question. Much of that work, however, is projected many years out. If all were done immediately, it would shake up the plan for local road work and the city would be unable to pay for the upgrades.

“Long story short, the projects that could be proposed along that truck route total $4.5 million, which is about $500,000 above your annual budgeted cap that you’ve established for bonding for these projects,” City Director of Planning and Community Development Dennis Stachewicz told the commission Thursday.

Commissioner Jason Schneider, who voted against the city’s previous support of 595, said he was not excited about the options facing the city, but felt the 595 denial was the best thing for everyone involved. Primarily, he was concerned the county would have had to deal with long-term maintenance costs associated with the additional road infrastructure.

“Even though I’m not pleased about having to discuss with my fellow commissioners how we’re going to be dealing with a much larger increase in traffic in the city, I still think for our community as a whole this is an overall win that 595 didn’t go through,” he said.

Commissioner Fred Stonehouse said the city had few real options with regard to the mine traffic, but noted his surprise at what he viewed as a convoluted process.

“I’m just amazed that a company as astute, as capable, as multi-national as Rio Tinto has been able to (mess) up so badly a simple transportation plan,” Stonehouse said. “To have this thing drag on so long in such a confusing fashion and to end up with something that everybody hates.”

The commission also requested the city to determine if there are any immediate options for a bypass around Marquette. If no options exist, staff will begin to look at other long-term bypass options. By commission request, staff will also begin looking at the Marquette truck ordinance so the commission can address it at a future date.

Finally, the city commission requested City Manager Bill Vajda investigate hiring an outside attorney for Rio Tinto-related matters, as the city attorney’s firm occasionally represents the company.

Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.