Bike Trail Group Big On Promises, But Low On Cash To Meet Future Costs
Allegan County Commissioners have once again reversed their position on the non-motorized bike path project known as the Blue Star Trail, saying this time the county will take ownership of the section of the trail that runs through Casco and Ganges townships.
Meanwhile, the Friends of the Blue Star Trail—the South Haven-based nonprofit group behind the project—has yet to show they indeed have money in their coffer to provide for future maintenance of the trail, which is one of the conditions and requirements set forth in the commissioners’ recent resolution.
Commissioners last September rescinded their support for the trail, saying the Friends of the Blue Star had deviated from their original trail-building plan and wasn’t completely forthcoming about their ability to meet its promises to take on various financial aspects of building and maintaining the proposed bike path along the 20-mile path.
Earlier this month, however, county officials changed their minds and said the county would indeed take ownership of the Casco and Ganges townships section of the bike path, making the trail part of the county parks system, but with some strings attached.
In their unanimous resolution, county commissioners established protective measures—for example, before the county takes ownership, Friends of the Blue Star Trail must show they have the funds to provide for the future maintenance of the trail.
Also, county officials stipulated the county must sign off on any aspect of the design and location of it before assuming ownership.
However, to date, the bike group has not provided any evidence it has the legacy funds for future maintenance. This was an issue for officials in Casco and Ganges townships who decided not to participate in the effort for that very reason. Officials there also said they anticipated numerous problems trying to get necessary easements from the multiple private property owners where the path runs.
Repeatedly, bike group officials say they plan on obtaining state and federal grants and hold fundraisers to obtain the funds needed to build the trail, but there is no guarantee they will be able to do so.
The lack of a maintenance endowment has also been an issue raised by Saugatuck city representatives, along with a slew of safety and traffic concerns that the local Lake Street/Blue Star Highway intersection presents, just north of the Blue Star Bridge.
Saugatuck and the bike group have yet to come to an agreement - and may never do so - on the proposed trail section running through the City of Saugatuck.
In Saugatuck Township the story is different; in December, township officials approved township responsibility for an available third lane to pass over the I-196 bridge at exit 36 in the unlikely event that significant increases in vehicle traffic should occur, and thereby, require use of three lanes. Saugatuck Township officials also have not as yet figured out how to link its path near North Street with the path north of there.
Critics say Saugatuck Township officials launched into building its portion of the trail without doing the necessary construction studies to address various building issues and never sought nor obtained public approval to build it or pay for future maintenance costs estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in the coming years.
In Douglas, there is an ongoing effort to complete the trail there, as city officials there say they have been awarded grants to help build the trail.
Friends of the Blue Star Trail President Jeanne VanZoeren did not return calls from The Local Observer to comment on the matter. In an open letter to the lakeshore communities on the Friends’ website, the group indicates there are “pledges” towards the maintenance legacy revenue, but nothing is being held in cash. The letter also concedes that the cost for the trail has significantly increased by millions of dollars as constructions costs were much higher than anticipated.
“Using what the Friends’ learned from the section recently built (the north section of the trail in Saugatuck Township), and reflecting on the general increase in construction costs, they revised their original 2009 estimates and now project the Trail will cost $11.1 million.
“This includes a pledge of $600,000 for a maintenance endowment,” states the letter. This will require $3.5 million in matching funds from donors. Not surprisingly, the cost estimate has risen, but this doesn’t impact the communities in which it will be built. Utilizing government grants, matched by donor funds, the Friends pledge to pay for the cost of construction, engineering, and maintenance.”
No mention is made by the bike group, Saugatuck Township officials or other government leaders about what happens if future government grants are not obtained and the bike group is unable to meet its financial obligations to pay for the path.