Back in November, an ELi reader wrote in asking about a particularly bumpy section of the Lansing River Trail:
“Dear ELi: I’m writing to ask if you can discover who is responsible for carrying out the trails millage in Ingham County. I use the Lansing River Trail frequently and have noticed that there is a significant stretch of the trail between East Lansing and Lansing which is in a sorry state of disrepair. Indeed, on either end of that stretch (roughly from Clippert St. to just before the spur that leads to Crego Park) recent renovations were done in the form of repairing the wooden planks over water and repaving. But in between, not only is there a wooden bridge in a state of disrepair but the pavement is rutted and seriously damaged. Is there a conflict of jurisdictions here, or a lack of county coordination for these repairs? After the recent millages passed, repairs were made, but apparently in a piecemeal fashion. Could you investigate why there is this long unfinished section in the middle of the trail? Thank you!”
I knew exactly where this reader was talking about – as would anyone who regularly uses that part of the trail. It feels as if, just as you head from Lansing to East Lansing (or vice versa), the new smooth trail ends and your teeth start rattling. The bridges are also as the reader describes them.
We actually looked into this question back in late November, when the reader asked, but we didn’t get around to publishing the answer because we were deep in annual fundraising season.
Now that the snow is melting, it seems like a good time to bring the good-news answer.
According to Nicole Wallace, the Trails and Parks Millage Program Coordinator for Ingham County Parks, those bridges should be fixed and that part of the trail should be repaved late this summer. Wallace explained that the delay in fixing that part of the trail surface has to do with delays in fixing nearby bridges.
“The reason there is a gap in the pavement fixes is because the City of Lansing needs to get heavy equipment back to this bridge before they fix the pavement in this area. They don’t want to redo the asphalt in that area, only to come in with large equipment for fixing Bridge 21, essentially tearing it up again.”
Wallace noted, “There will also be asphalt work with the project for Bridge 18.” All of this means that “most of this area from Kalamazoo [Street] to Potter Park will have new asphalt.”
We had been put in touch with Wallace via Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner, who represents a large chunk of East Lansing on the Board of Commissioners. While we had Grebner, we asked him to explain why he has the reputation of being a grouch when it comes to the Trails Millage.
Grebner explained that he loves the trails and parks, and that his issue was with the back-up in dispersing funds and getting projects done.
Said Grebner, “We’re finding that none of the local municipalities has much experience overseeing construction or repair of recreational trails. They make a proposal to us, which we review and approve over a period of many months. Then the municipality applies for the additional funds specified in the proposal we reviewed” – for example, matching funds from the Michigan DNR – “and fairly often discovers that part of the funding is not available. That delays the process, while the municipality reworks the finances, and brings the revised project back to us for re-approval.”
He continued, “When the funds are finally all secured, the municipality obtains bids, which frequently come back 50% lower than expected, or 100% higher. In the former case, the project goes ahead, and the only negative impact is that money we’ve set aside for a project remains unspent, often for several years. In the latter case, the municipality comes back to the county asking for additional funds, which tends to delay the actual construction for at least several months, and sometimes forces everyone involved to start over.”
What would Grebner prefer?
“The county ought to work more actively with the municipalities, so when things threaten to get off track, we can quickly adjust in order to protect the schedule. In some cases, with the cooperation of the municipality, the county should undertake the project directly, cutting out several levels of indirection.”
Grebner wants the money collected for trails and parks spent: “The county collects about $4 million per year from the millage, and the current unspent balance is roughly $8 million – two years of receipts. At one point, the unspent balance was above $12 million. I argued successfully that we had to be less picky and more supportive, or we’d end up with ever higher unspent balances.”
“I’m usually thought of as very cautious financially,” Grebner concluded, “but when the problem is fiscal constipation, it’s time for laxatives.”