In-Depth Discussion Needed With Proposed Bike Trail & State Officials, Say Saugatuck Leaders
Following last week’s workshop session to discuss the controversial ongoing bike trail issue, Saugatuck city officials say their next move is to request to meet with the trail’s grant administrators, the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund.
That action was discussed at Monday’s council meeting.
“The purpose of this meeting is to identify the city’s concerns and the expectation the granting agencies have regarding current/future grant submissions initiated by the Friends of the Blue Star Trail to minimize confusion moving forward,” states one part of the April 7 letter to the lead group behind the bike trail issue.
The Friends of the Blue Star Trail is the non-profit, all volunteer group which is endeavoring to connect the shoreline communities through an interconnected, 20-mile, 10-foot wide non-motorized trails from South Haven to Holland along the Blue Star Highway.
They have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through a combination of federal and state grants and community fundraising, an effort that is ongoing, according to Friends President Jeanne Van Zoeren.
The bike trail construction project is moving forward in the City of Douglas and Saugatuck Township this spring and summer, but Saugatuck leaders have not decided to join in citing unanswered and unresolved financial and safety issues.
Because the Friends group, Douglas and Saugatuck Township leaders have forged ahead without waiting for Saugtauck’s decision of whether to participate or not, many local residents are calling the effort “the Blue Star Bike Trail to nowhere” since it can’t be connected if Saugtuck doesn’t join in.
Douglas had to contend with finishing the trail on the south side of Blue Star Highway bridge—not spanning the entire bridge as was the original intent— after not receiving the support they sought from Saugatuck.
The Saugatuck portion of the trail would constitute 982 feet of the 20-mile trail, but officials reiterated what they have previously told the Friends group and their neighboring government officials on seveal occasions: the city’s engineer, Fleis & Vandenbrink, have identified a number of concerns and have recommend against approval of the trail.
One particular and important problem, say Saugatuck officials, includes, “The volume of traffic and geometrics of the Blue Star Highway and Lake Street intersection make it difficult to construct a pedestrian facility through there safely,” relates the engineer in a March 29 memo to the city.
Saugatuck officials further reported they have already been in touch with the granting agencies about the matter and they too advised the city to not approve any conceptual plan that the city has identified issues with. This information was also part of what the city related to the Friends in the April 7 letter.
In response to the city’s pushback, Friends have made a call to action urging supporters to contact city officials in support of the trailway, especially because funding for the entire trail is at risk because that funding hinges on regional and local connectivity which is not possible if Saugatuck is not on board.
“Recall that Friends are funding the trailway. This is a gift worth thousands of dollars! We pay the required community match money for the federal and state grants we receive. We also pay for the engineering fees and other incidentals. These grants for the trailway obviously make a significant economic impact upon a community so dependent upon tourism,” states, in part, the call to action on the biking organization’s website.
However, Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier at Monday’s meeting cautioned the council, saying, “The reality is that nothing is free, there are always outside expenditures one never anticipates.”
Some of those unanticipated expenses include engineering and attorney reviews of the various documents associated with such a project, noted Harrier.
Another big stumbling block, according to Saugatuck leaders, is that there has been no dedicated fund set up to pay for future legacy costs, i.e. repair and rehab of the 20-mile asphalt trail, wooden bridges and that are expected to cost millions of dollars over the next 15 to 20 years.”
“We have received some verbal promises by (Friends), but we’re not willing to put that kind of potential financial burden on our taxpaying residents if that funding does not materialize,” said Harrier.
“And, right now the Friends group only has about $240,000 raised for the entire project and that wouldn’t even cover the required matching gift portion of any state or federal or private grants they would apply for,” he added.
Not completely ruling out their participation in the project if their safety and financial concerns can be addressed, Saugatuck city officials have made plans to establish an escrow account as part of any future agreement with Friends if the project is later deemed a priority and the city chooses to participate.