A 13 Watchdog investigation found a deep division among state leaders what the correct speed limit is on West Michigan's newest highway and how to enforce it.
The M-231 highway currently has a speed limit of 55 mph, but internal emails obtained by the Watchdog team show leaders at the Michigan State Police believe the speed limit is under posted and should be raised because the majority of people feel comfortable driving faster and the road was designed to handle higher speeds.
M-231 opened to traffic in Ottawa County in late October 2015 as a bypass around Grand Haven. The road connects I-96 to the north and M-45 on the southern end.
Lt. Gary Megge, a long-time expert from the Michigan State Police Traffic Services Division, did a site visit of M-231 in January and wrote an email to leaders within MDOT and the MSP.
"After driving the 7-mile bypass in both the northbound and southbound directions it became very apparent that the current 55 mph speed limit did not seem appropriate," Megge said.
Megge said there are zero driveways -- only one intersection -- and the entire length is fenced and is "truly limited access."
"Given the nature of the highway and the prevailing traffic speeds it would seem appropriate to correct the speed limit on the M-231 Bypass to either 65 or 70 mph," Megge wrote.
Megge wrote in an email that he was going to "attempt to work with MDOT to get the speed limit corrected on this highway."
His emails show the state's speed study on M-231 had a benchmark average of approximately 65 mph in both directions.
Ten months after Lt. Megge's research and request for investigation, nothing's changed on the highway. The speed signs still say 55 mph.
The 13 Watchdog team did our own speed study, assisted by Jim Walker from the National Motorists Association who used his LIDAR gun to lock in speeders.
Our study concluded 88 percent of all M-231 drivers were breaking the law by going over the speed limit, indicating it's an easy location for officers, troopers or deputies to catch people breaking the law. Experts say it's preferable to set a speed limit where approximately 15 percent of people are driving faster than the limit. Our study showed the 85th percentile speed on M-231 was 63 mph, indicating 55 mph is perhaps off the mark.
"That one is so glaringly obvious, and I believe the state police and local authorities were all aware that the posted limit was well below travel speeds," Walker said. "Anybody who's driving around 65, 67, 63, those are the safest drivers on the road."
M-231 is likely one of West Michigan's most enforced highways, according to the internal emails obtained by our investigative team through the Freedom of Information Act from the Michigan State Police. The road is approximately three miles away from the Ottawa County Sheriff's Department.
Some drivers agree the speed limit should be raised.
"If they know the speed limit is supposed to be 65 mph, why would you give somebody a ticket?" driver Conrad Brown said.
"I think it's a good idea so I can get to work faster," driver Amiel Blok said.
Once the request was made by the MSP to MDOT earlier this year, there is no evidence we have obtained that the investigation continued through the year. On Monday, Nov. 14, MDOT leaders didn't answer questions as to whether an engineering and traffic investigation on M-231 was done after the MSP request, which appears to be required by law.
There are indications in our stack of emails that MDOT planned to wait until Michigan's legislature approved speed limit changes.
"Although this is independent of the speed limit legislation issue, we may want to hold this change in abeyance until the legislature makes their intentions known," MDOT Engineer Scott Thayer wrote in an email to the MSP.
"M-231 is a two-lane road, not a freeway," MDOT spokesperson Jeff Cranson wrote in an email to WZZM. "I do not know of any two-lane state trunk line signed higher than 55 mph in the state."
As the MSP made the request for further investigation of the road, Ottawa County Sheriff Gary Rosema was brought in to the conversation. Megge suggested enforcement by the Ottawa County Sheriff's Department be lessened or curtailed considering the issues with the speed limit.
The indirect request made by Megge didn't go over well with Rosema, who is retiring this year after serving Ottawa County as top law enforcement officer for more than two decades.
Rosema wrote in a letter copied to the MSP: "I have throughout my years seen many speed limits changed but I have to say this is the first time that we as an organization have been asked to suspend speed enforcement on a particular section of roadway."
Rosema told us in an on-camera interview he was satisfied his deputies should continue enforcement. He told us he needed clarification from the state to determine what the speed limit is.
"Even though it was designed for speed limits of 65, until such time as they rule it different we'll continue to work at the 55," Rosema said.
As for people who received speeding tickets, Attorney Magistrate Vern Helder who handles informal hearings for traffic citations in Ottawa County's 58th District Court said he wasn't aware of the speed studies showing potential issues. After we brought the results of the state's study and our own study to him, Helder said he wasn't sure how he would rule in court if people started using the speed limit controversy as a defense.
"I'd have to to think about it to see what's the most appropriate course," Helder said.
Michigan's legislature is preparing to overhaul the laws regarding speed limits later this year. If the legislation passes as it's currently proposed in the Michigan Senate, it would make it easier for the MSP and MDOT to change speeds on a road like M-231.
"Once the legislation is finalized and passed, speed increases will be determined using speed studies in collaboration with MSP," MDOT's spokesman John Richard wrote in an email response.