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December 14, 2018 12:00 am

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New Revelations & State Warnings About Local Bike Path Project Stuns Government Officials & Area Residents; Building Costs & Maintenance Estimates Soar

The controversial 20-mile, contiguous recreation/bike pathway - known as the Blue Star Trail - that proponents want to try to build from South Haven to Saugatuck Township may have hit yet another major stumbling block.

And that new stumbling block also comes on the heels of new revelations of incredible multi-million-dollar increased cost estimates for the proposed bike trail (or linear park as its proponents like to call it), along with additional increasing multi-million-dollar future maintenance cost projections in the coming years that would most likely have to be paid for by taxpayers.

And in still yet another revelation, The Local Observer has learned that at least one Saugatuck Township official told the organization behind the bike trail plan (Friends of the Blue Star Trail in South Haven) and other government leaders that a future (possibly multi-million-dollar) millage could be placed on the backs of township taxpayers in the coming years to pay for its portion of the future rehab costs of the bike trail.

These latest revelations come even as Saugatuck Township continues to build its section of the bike path despite the fact that township residents haven’t even been polled to get their thoughts on the need for a bike path or whether they would agree to pay for the future maintenance cost projections that they would most likely have to foot the bill for.

In a recent, stunning announcement, the Friends of the Blue Star group behind the bike path project released a statement that the projected costs of building the trail was now jumping from an estimated $6 million to $11 million. The lower figure was being touted by the group only a few months ago. No reports have been released publicly specifying why the projected costs are now almost double the original amount.

And now in what some government officials and several concerned local residents are calling the latest “stumbling block to the bike path to nowhere” saga, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials last week threw a rather large wet blanket of information on township officials’ plans to keep building its portion of the bike trail.

The MDOT officials addressing the Saugatuck Township leaders at last week’s meeting were Art Green, manager of the MDOT Transportation Service Center from Grand Rapids, and his colleagues MDOT Grant Coordinator Amy Matisoff and Permits Engineer Kerwin Keen.

The MDOT officials told township leaders that if they want to try and qualify for federal Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) funds to construct the southern portion of its planned non-motorized, asphalt-and-wooden-bridge constructed biking path - from the I-196 exit 36 overpass to the Saugatuck Woods subdivision at Fallen Leaf Trail Street and Blue Star Highway - they will have to sign various legal agreements with MDOT that, in essence, could put anywhere from $1 million to $2 million of township taxpayers’ - and other state taxpayers’ - money at risk.

Those figures are based on the cost of building such a connecting bike trail structure to deal with the I-196/Exit 36 overpass which could run anywhere from $1.2 million to more than $2 million, according to documented costs of a similar-in-length-and-scope bike path structure completed over a year ago in Holland, Michigan, that state officials have provided the township.

Worse yet, MDOT officials warned Saugatuck Township Board members that those written agreements would also mandate that if MDOT ever needed to expand or do necessary repair work to the bridge, that the state could order the township to tear down that structure at any time and the cost of dismantling the bike path structure would have to be paid solely by the township.

Additionally, MDOT officials also notified the township leaders that the township - if ordered to tear it down - would not be reimbursed by the state or federal government for their having built that bike path structure in the first place.

The MDOT officials said they came to the township board meeting specifically to help sort out and “publicly notify” township officials exactly what the financial and legal risks would be if the township continues to try and build a bike path structure around the I-196/Exit 36 overpass area to link it to the planned pathway beginning in South Haven.

The Exit 36 overpass along Blue Star has two lanes and one accessory lane. The TAP grant application requires the township to own, operate and maintain the bike trail and be responsible for its relocation from the current proposed route if, again, the state ever has a future need for that space on the bridge.

“MDOT is committed to transportation service, but I cannot promise there will be a TAP grant program in the future (if the township decides to postpone any decision for the time being),” warned Matisoff.

What became clear at and after the meeting was that Saugatuck Township officials never took the steps to ascertain what its potential taxpayer-funded cost liabilities might be for its entire bike trail plan before launching into the initial building phase of the costly project.

Construction of the township north sector is now nearly complete on Blue Star Highway from North Street south to Old Allegan Road.

Funds also have run out for Friends of the Blue Star Trail— the volunteer group promoting and assisting governmental entities in the proposed bike path—to expand that trail a little further south to S. Maple Street as originally planned.

The biking organization is now assessing options for helping pay for the Saugatuck Township section immediately north of North Street, despite the fact that the South Haven-based group does not have the money or state and federal grants in its coffers to pay for bike trail construction costs all along the planned route as once promised.

In terms of the proposed pathway through the City of Saugatuck, officials there cite costs, safety concerns, lack of a sufficient emergency vehicle pathway, lack of planning by Saugatuck Township and Douglas, and other city priorities for its decision in not approving the bike path through its jurisdiction to date.

Douglas officials recently blamed their Saugatuck counterparts for having lost the surety of a $427,000 federal grant previously on the table as part of Douglas’ portion of the Blue Star Trail.

MDOT administers and allocates the TAP funds, federal dollars meant for specific activity that enhances intermodal modes of transportation and encourages safe alternative options.

The news from the state officials caused one township official to voice his concerns.

“My first reaction is that I don’t want to put financial obligations on a future township board,” said Saugatuck Township Trustee Roy McIIwaine.

A township decision could hinge on the question, as asked by Saugatuck Township Manager Aaron Sheridan, “Are there high odds on getting a grant in the future?”

It is a matter that needs further exploration, the board said.

The Friends group submitted the TAP application in May as well as a Michigan Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund application in April on behalf of the township.

The latter is meant to help with the locally required match of $100,000.

“We are working closely with MDOT staff and believe we have a strong chance of getting approval. The big IF is our ability to provide the required community match of $100,000,” states the Friends’ website.

In another stunning revelation, it has been revealed that several months ago Saugatuck Township Manager Sheridan also shared with the biking group officials and other governmental leaders that the township could seek a millage from township taxpayers to pay for the projected maintenance/rehab costs of the township’s asphalt-and-wooden bridge bike path structure that engineers have estimated could locally run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sheridan made that statement even though Saugatuck Township residents have never been asked whether they want a bike path or would agree to pay for the bike path’s future maintenance costs.

Several government officials confirmed Sheridan’s statements made during a meeting of the bike group and area municipal leaders.

“That’s exactly what he (Sheridan) said,” confirmed Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier, who is also a township resident.

“I was there and heard it…and I was stunned,” said Harrier.

“He (Sheridan) was talking about it (a millage) being a way they could fund future maintenance costs.

“I would think Saugatuck Township residents would have wanted to know that might be part of the township’s plans to pay for those costs prior to the township just starting to build it.

“Township residents need to be aware they could be paying a lot more in taxes just to maintain that bike trail.

“At the very least they should have been informed about all the potential costs to them regarding this project…and they haven’t been.”

New Revelations & State Warnings About Local Bike Path Project Stuns Government Officials & Area Residents; Building Costs & Maintenance Estimates Soar

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