Road Commissioner: County shouldn’t ‘spend a nickel’ on 774-mile bike trail

Train cars have been parked for months on a Huron & Eastern Railway Co. Inc. line between Vassar and Millington. Planners are eyeing the possibility of running a portion of the 774-mile Iron Belle biking trail along the route. (Photo by John Cook)
Train cars have been parked for months on a Huron & Eastern Railway Co. Inc. line between Vassar and Millington. Planners are eyeing the possibility of running a portion of the 774-mile Iron Belle biking trail along the route. (Photo by John Cook)

Planners are trying to decide how to route a portion of the 774-mile Iron Belle biking trail between Vassar and Millington, but one thing is certain: Tuscola County road commissioners want nothing to do with it.

Tuscola County Highway Engineer Michele L. Zawerucha said Thursday that she met with planners hired by the state  who are trying to figure out how to route the trail between Millington and Vassar.

Possible routes are Hess Road to Saginaw Road, Caine Road to Saginaw Road, M-15, or along the existing Huron and Eastern Railway.

Currently, the trail enters Tuscola County from the south on the existing Southern Links Trailway but has nowhere to go.

During Thursday’s regular road commission meeting, officials asked Zawerucha what role planners envisioned Tuscola County having in the trail development, outside of using road rights-of-way.

“They are looking to see if we would participate financially,” she said.

“How about a ‘no’?” said Jack Laurie, chairman, Tuscola County Road Commission. “Does that fit in there any place?

“Just think of the roads, the shoulders that we could fix, with all of this money that we’re putting out there for a bicycle,” he added. “To have a bicycle trail is a luxury. If you don’t have a road so a car can drive down it, that’s pretty serious stuff.”

The Iron Belle Trail, stretching from Belle Isle Park in Detroit to Ironwood in the western Upper Peninsula, actually features two routes, one for hiking and the other — the one proposed to run through part of Tuscola County — for bicycling. The trail is about 60 percent completed, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ website.

Plans call for it to proceed north out of Millington, into Vassar Township, and the city of Vassar, then traveling southwest and generally along the Cass River into Tuscola Township and on to Frankenmuth and beyond.

Zawerucha said some of the trail is developed and the plan is to use existing trails to the fullest extent possible.

Planners presented two options for the part missing between Millington and Vassar: Route the Iron Belle along the county roads or take over a section of existing railway that is set off the road. Using the railway would not cost the county anything, and is what the planners prefer, she added.

Plotting the trail along the roadway would include marking it with signage and expanding the roadway to accommodate bikers, Zawerucha said.

Zawerucha said Saginaw Road does have wide shoulders since it’s a primary road. However, other roads would need to be widened with additional pavement to accommodate non-motorized bikes.

Zawerucha, however, said she didn’t see how that could “realistically happen in the current right-of-way that we have.” Tuscola County Road Commission

Commissioners remained focused on the cost to the county.

 “I just don’t see where the money comes from,” said Gary Parsell, vice-chairman of the road commission.

Laurie said that Zawerucha could blame him as the fall guy “because I don’t think we should spend a nickel on it until we have the roads…”

“It’s funny the state…the first thing they complain about and publicize is what percentage of our roads are below the standard that they ought to be,” he said. “And then they want to come along and talk about all of the good things they’re doing on bicycle trails…to me it’s just ridiculous.

“And the legislators all want to stand up and claim victory because they got a bicycle path from I don’t know where in the hell to…Ironwood,” Laurie said.

“To me it’s a long way to ride to Ironwood in a car, I sure wouldn’t sit on a bicycle and do it.”

However, representatives from many organizations view the economic value of the Iron Belle.

Partners in its development include the Michigan Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michigan Economic Development Corp., National Park Service, and Pure Michigan.

Department of Natural Resources officials have said the bicycling route allows for statewide and national marketing of the many trails that will constitute the bicycling portion of the trail.

Locals like Jody Dean, president, Millington Chamber of Commerce, view it as an attractive amenity that could help the economy, both by those who travel through town via the trail and are considering relocating to the area.

“If people are moving into a community it used to be that the only thing they checked was the school system,” Dean told The Advertiser. “People now are checking the school system, but they want to know what else the community offers as amenities.”

Zawerucha said Thursday that she had also talked about the trail with Robert McKay, president, Tuscola County Parks and Recreation Commission.

“They’re very enthusiastic about developing this trail to get that kind of economy moved into Vassar,” Zawerucha said, adding that trail supporters are exploring the possibilities of seeking grants and other forms of funding to build out the trail.

“Show me the dollars and then I might be interested,” said Parsell.

Tuscola County Board of Commissioners member Tom Young was in the audience at Thursday’s meeting and asked “if the county is involved in this.”

“No we are not,” he said.

According to the DNR’s website, there are “many options for funding the acquisition and development of the trail, all of which will be leveraged. The federal government provides limited funds to the North Country Trail Association and its volunteers to develop and maintain the North Country National Scenic Trail.

“The Association seeks private and other funding sources as well. Federal highway dollars, Recreation Improvement Fund, Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, local resources, businesses, foundations, trail groups, and volunteers will all be involved in the development and maintenance of both the hiking and the bicycling portions of the trail. MDOT committed $4.7 million in federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant funds to seven projects along the Iron Belle biking route. Funding gaps along this route continues to be a priority for TAP.”

The road commission took no action on the matter at Thursday’s meeting.

Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at andrew@tcadvertiser.com

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