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June 18, 2019 5:44 pm

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Allegan County Commissioners Rescind Financial Support For The Blue Star Bike Trail Project; Kills Plans For 20-Mile Contiguous Bike Path From South Haven To Saugatuck Township

The Allegan County Board of Commissioners has rescinded its resolution in support of the recreational bikeway path called the Blue Star Trail, citing the in-progress project has deviated from the original plan initially put forth by the group behind the effort: Friends of the Blue Star Trail.

“It was not a rejection of the project as much as it was the need for a clarification of what is involved for us there,” Allegan County Commissioner Tom Jessup told The Local Observer Tuesday about the commission’s motion and vote at last week’s meeting.

The county officials made their decision to nix their initial resolution/agreement in 2014 to take over ownership and financially support future maintenance and replacement costs in support of the bike trail in Casco Township.

That decision also came after learning from the biking group last week that their members have not actually raised the amount of money they were indicating to various governmental entities and the public that they had obtained to launch and complete the proposed 20-mile bike trail from South Haven through Saugatuck Township.

As a result of tough questioning by Allegan County commissioners last week, officials of the South Haven bike group were forced to concede they had not raised any where near the amount needed to meet their publicly stated goal of paying for most of the construction and engineering costs of the bike path.

In fact, the bike officials finally admitted to the county leaders that they were hoping to obtain the needed and promised funds by possibly obtaining future state and federal grants to meet their financial obligations as proposed to the townships and cities through which the planned bike path was to have been built.

Several county officials later said they felt “misled” or “deceived” by the biking group because many people were led to believe they already had secured those funds when bike group representatives would attend public meetings in Saugatuck, Douglas, Saugatuck Township, Casco and Ganges townships trying to get those governments’ leaders to agree to participate in building the path.

One county commissioner told The Local Observer, “There’s no guarantee they (biking group) will ever get any future state or federal grants for their project. We all know those (state and federal grant) dollars are drying up, especially for bike path projects because of the maintenance and replacement cost issues. A lot of municipalities just can’t afford those kind of costs for these bike paths.”

The county commissioners’ decision effectively kills for now any chance the biking group had to build the 20-mile contiguous trail from South Haven through Saugatuck Township.

Governments like Saugatuck Township that immediately jumped in and have already begun building the trail in the belief that it would connect and run contiguously from South Haven through Saugatuck Township now are realizing they simply have a long, disconnected bike path running only along the Blue Star Highway in their jurisdiction.

More problematic, their taxpayers now have to foot the bill for the expected and expensive future maintenance and replacement costs - currently estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars - for an asphalt and wooden bridge-filled path that critics now call “The Bike Trail To Nowhere.”

City of Saugatuck officials now appear to be the smartest of the government leaders who were to be involved in this project as they from the start refused to agree to participate in the bike group’s building plans citing other city priorities and limited financial resources to maintain such a bike trail.

It was the Saugatuck city leaders who also backed up their decision not to participate by obtaining input from an engineering company to determine what the future “replacement and rehabilitation costs” would be that residents would have to pay for with their tax dollars. Estimated costs from that study said the entire proposed trail from South Haven to Saugatuck Township could cost millions of dollars in the decades ahead.

Conversely, Saugatuck Township officials are now being criticized for jumping into building the bike trail in their jurisdiction without any engineering studies or even gathering opinions from their own taxpaying residents to determine if those residents were willing to pay for the bike path’s future maintenance and replacement costs.

Those same Saugatuck Township officials apparently also did not do their due diligence or homework when it came to determining whether all the governments along the proposed Blue Star Trail were in agreement on the project to ensure there were no legal or political barriers in the way of its future development and completion.

Saugatuck Township taxpayers are now on the hook for the estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars it will cost in the future to maintain its still-uncompleted section of bike trail that to date still doesn’t even connect to its own sections of the path particularly from north and south of North Street.

In yet another blow to the project, Saugatuck Township Fire District Department personnel continue to voice safety issues about the bike trail township officials recently built in front of the department, citing Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and Allegan County Road Commission safety standards.

That problem lies within the Saugatuck Township section of the trail recently completed right in front of where the fire trucks leave and enter the department’s station.

The department has now requested that the Friends of the Blue Star Trail pay for a staggered gate on either side of the department’s driveway entrances.

That request was a no-go per the construction engineer and MDOT regulations because the trail is not considered a public sidewalk, but a larger non-motorized pathway to be owned and maintained by Saugatuck Township.

The next big thing for the department was obtaining flashing beacon lights on either side of the bike trail for safety, which Saugatuck Township Fire District Chief Greg Janik said is estimated to cost $15,000 in material and which he says the Friends of the Blue Star organizations has now agreed to pay for.

However, while the biking group has agreed to pay for those flashing beacon lights, Saugatuck Township taxpayers will be required to pay all maintenance and replacement costs for them. It is estimated those lights will have to be replaced in about eight years.

The issue arose “late in the game” and the amount of traffic the trail has produced so far has “surprised” the department, according to Janik.

For the time being, the contractor has placed a temporary plastic barricade before the installment of the flashing beacons.

“We really want people to enjoy it, but safety is paramount,” said Janik.

These latest developments come on the heels of revelations by The Local Observer last week that the project is now projected to cost twice as much as originally anticipated, jumping from an original estimate of $6 million to now over $11 million.

In related news, Douglas city officials announced Monday that federal grant dollars—the $427,000 Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) grant—they previously thought could’ve been completely lost or minimized, was now a sure thing as informed to them by the city engineer.

The grant would allow Douglas to construct its section of the bike trail (also referred to as a “linear park” by some) from Center Street to just south of the Blue Star Bridge, and make general improvements to the Blue Star Corridor.

It is not yet known whether the Allegan County Board of Commissioners’ decision last week may cause Douglas officials to pause and reconsider their support of the bike trail in their city since it seems likely it will now not be part of a larger contiguous connection from South Haven through Saugatuck Township as first proposed.

Ganges Township and Casco Township officials have made it very clear they would not - and will not in the future - support the bike path financially in their respective communities.

Because of that stance by Casco Township, Friends of the Blue Star Trail in 2014 had requested the county take ownership of the trail section within Casco Township with the understanding that the county would not be financially responsible for its construction, but it would put county taxpayers on the hook for potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in future maintenance and replacement costs.

Initially, Friends of the Blue Star Trail told the county officials via the 2014 resolution agreement, the trail would initiate from Baseline Road, which is at the southern border of Casco Township, and move north.

In the intervening period from when the county commission first approved the resolution in 2014, the Friends of the Blue Star Trail changed course without informing Allegan County that their new plans called for building the trail from Saugatuck Township south instead of the originally planned effort to begin in Casco Township and build north.

That decision by the biking group came after they ran head-long into participation opposition by Casco and Ganges township officials and also began having legal issues securing needed easements from property owners along the Blue Star Highway there.

Allegan County Commissioners said they have other questions before they would decide to approve any amended version of the resolution, one that aligns with the actual current plans the Friends of The Blue Star Trail group have.

Those issues revolve around general funding for the project, future maintenance and the difficulty of securing easements (due to public encroachment of private property on certain sections of the road).

“I like the concept, but I don’t know how it is going to work,” said Jessup.

Friends president Jeanne VanZoeren did not return calls for comment on this issue.

VanZoeren has criticized The Local Observer in the past when the newspaper addressed these and other serious problems with the planned bike trail, including the county not being told of changes to their path-building plans.

Allegan County Commissioners Rescind Financial Support For The Blue Star Bike Trail Project; Kills Plans For 20-Mile Contiguous Bike Path From South Haven To Saugatuck Township

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