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Wednesday, January 12,2011

When a sidewalk is more than a sidewalk

Race, politics come to the fore of the proposed Waverly Road sidewalk project

by Andy Balaskovitz

I prepared my black Palomar GT mountain bike Sunday morning to travel the path that has been called both treacherous and unused in the past 10 days.


Is it so dangerous along Waverly Road in Lansing Township that a sidewalk is necessary or so senseless because it would be underused?


The city of Lansing, with support from Lansing Township, wants to build a sidewalk that would connect Frances Park in Lansing to the west boundary of Grand River Park on the other side of the Grand River. To do that, it must go through Lansing Township and along at least one property owner’s yard who is livid the city wants to do so. The price tag is $1.3 million, but no one knows how it would be paid for yet.


There’s no doubt that the portion of this foot path between the Waverly Road bridge over the Grand River and Old Lansing Road in Lansing Township more resembles the narrow, wooded Manistee River Trail than suburban Lansing.


I set off from the shopping plaza at 1701 S. Waverly Road that features a Biggby coffee shop, Subway, Skillman’s hair and nail salon, Fine China Restaurant, Danford Carpet and Flooring and Contours Express women’s gym. There’s also a Flap Jack restaurant nearby. I mention these businesses because they are reasons people travel to this intersection — either by foot, bicycle, automobile or bus.


There are two CATA bus stops on Old Lansing Road between Waverly and Lansing roads — two more reasons people would walk here. The car lanes on Old Lansing are flanked by gravel shoulders. I biked to the Lansing/Old Lansing roads intersection, past the YMCA and back to Waverly in a few minutes. Seven automobiles moved over to the oncoming lane to avoid me on the shoulder. It was 3:30 p.m.


It’s difficult to stay on your bike if you plan to ride south on Waverly from Old Lansing. There is a grassy berm with a steep incline separating Tim Ross’ house at the corner from the road. I hopped back on my bike once Ross’ berm leveled out.


The first thing I noticed was the footprints in the snow, evidence that people had walked this path since the last snowfall two days before. The west side of Waverly is far more dangerous to walk or bike along than the east side because Deepdale Cemetery gets so close to the road.


Telephone poles may make the potential excavation — if a sidewalk is approved — more difficult. Six are on the cemetery side of the road before you reach Waverly Hills Drive. Then there are five between Waverly Hills and the bridge, which is also where political analyst Bill Ballenger’s house — Ballenger being a livid property owner — is. These, on top of the slope protecting Ballenger’s home from the road, mean his property will be most affected by potential changes. The speed limit for cars through this area is 35 miles per hour.


This short stretch between the bridge and Waverly Hills Drive — along Ballenger’s property — is the most difficult to pass. This is where the 1-foot-wide path lines the road. A veteran bicyclist would likely ride in the road and all others might be better off walking their bike through it.


Once you pass Ballenger’s house and reach the bridge when riding south on Waverly, you’re in the clear. The bridge sidewalk was not plowed. The only path was from footsteps in the snow.


The ride down the north side of Moores River Drive was easy. There was about 2 inches of snow, which means the walkers had pretty much trampled it down flat.


There’s no doubt biking or walking this footpath poses a danger. But there are other factors at stake here: Who actually uses the path, and who will pay for it.




Race and gender


Ballenger maintains that he believes Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero wants to build the path for “mostly power-walking women from Moores Park” so they can more easily get to the YMCA.


He also maintains that those who use the path are “mostly lower income, largely African American” coming from Jolly Road. He said that he can tell by looking at passersby’s clothes when they are less affluent.


However, he says that was just his observation, not a reason to block the project. He has said his comments were not racist at all, but taken out of context.


Nonetheless, his quote caused a stir, leaving people asking: ‘What does it matter who would or currently uses the path?’


The Clergy Forum of Greater Lansing took it another step further, calling Ballenger’s comments “racist, elitist and sexist” and urged a boycott of his services. Ballenger is the owner of the political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. He is a former state legislator and is often quoted in the news media.


Ballenger declined any more interviews because he feels his portrayal is jeopardizing his safety. He issued a statement to both City Pulse and WILS-AM radio that referred to Bernero’s denunciation of him. It read:


"This is my final statement. Because of his inability to make a coherent argument defending his plans and actions, Mayor Bernero has used your radio station to try to silence me by fanning the flames of racial hatred. As a result, I have received threats. With the events of last Saturday in Arizona fresh in our minds, I am forced to consider hiring personal security to protect myself. If anything happens to me, it is on him, and on you ... ."


Kenneth Cole, a former Detroit News reporter who is a director at the downtown lobbying firm Governmental Consultant Services Inc., said he has never known Ballenger to be racist but thought his observation was irrelevant.


“Power-walkers, those in wheelchairs, black people, white people — to me, that’s irrelevant (who uses it),” Cole, a black man, said. “The government exists to ensure everyone is safe first and foremost.”


Cole was at the Biggby coffee shop on Waverly when I stopped in after my ride. He lives in Delta Township but used to own a home on Glasgow Street, just south of the project area. He said the question at the end of the day is: Does the public purpose trump someone’s rights as a property owner?


He believes Ballenger and state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, has every right to call the project into question, especially because it comes with a $1.3 million price tag.




Politics


Jones was the first to draw attention to the project in a press release Jan. 3, calling it “Virg’s sidewalk to nowhere.” Jones’ district ends at the west side of Waverly Road and does not include the project. However, Jones says because he has constituents within the city limits, he’s entitled to interject when people complain to him.


“When people call me and say it’s a waste of money, I consider that my duty,” he said. “It’s not a partisan thing. This is people protesting spending tax dollars improperly when we are in a crisis.”


Cole said “the fact the he (Jones) is a Republican and Virg is a Democrat is not lost on me,” but he suspects the core of Jones’ argument is on the project cost, not political.


One of the issues Jones and Ballenger have with Bernero’s project is that most of it — more than 60 percent — isn’t in the city of Lansing, but Lansing Township. However, Bernero has said that he is merely practicing regionalism by seeking to cooperate with nearby governments over resources shared by residents in both jurisdictions.


Lansing Township Supervisor John Daher said he has no problem with Bernero’s taking the initiative on this project.


“There
are a lot of border properties in this area. Through interesting quirks
in history, we (Lansing Township) have five little pieces in Ingham
County,” Daher said. “We share borders everywhere. There’s no reason we
can’t partner in those border-type situations.”


Daher added: “I’m not offended he came to me and thought this was something he’d like to partner on.”


Yet
Lansing City Councilmember Eric Hewitt, who sits on the Tri-County
Regional Planning Commission, the governmental unit studying this
project, doesn’t see it that way.


“He’s
encumbering another municipality,” Hewitt said. “Virg held the township
hostage at Eastwood Town Center, too, over sewage. This is a
continuation of Virg overstepping his bounds as mayor of Lansing.”




Logistics


This project is still in
its infancy. It’s the city’s proposal to build a $1.3 million sidewalk
in Lansing Township and bike lanes on Moores River Drive in the city. It
would cover about one-and-a-half miles between Frances Park and the
west boundary of Grand River Park across the Grand River.


At this point, the
city and township are just trying to get it on the Tri-County Regional
Planning Commission’s “illustrative list,” which basically says the
project is a priority even though it doesn’t have funding lined up.


And no one is sure how it will get paid for. Daher
said the only way the township would consider splitting the costs with
the city is if grants cover up to 80 percent of the project.


“We
were of the mind that even if we couldn’t get 100 percent paid for in
grants, then if we could find a way to complete the project at a
reasonable cost that we could split it,” he said.


Before
applying for grants and getting under Tri-County’s consideration, the
city had to go back and get written support from Lansing Township and
the Ingham County Road Commission for the project. Waverly Road is a
county road, which means the road commission would ultimately have to
permit any changes on it, Bill Conklin, managing director of the road
commission, said.


Conklin
said the road commission may chip in some money to pay for it too, but
that would need support from the Board of Road Commissioners first.


Chad
Gamble, director of public services for Lansing, said the city aims to
have its application in for a state Department of Transportation
Enhancement grant by Jan. 20. He’s not sure whether the municipalities
will have to pitch in 25 percent or 20 percent of the total cost. “It’s
all very, very preliminary. We know the state is not flush with money.”


But,
in its Regional 2035 Transportation Plan, the Tri-County Regional
Planning Commission identified this portion of Waverly Road as part of a
“priority corridor” for linking non-motorized transportation routes.
Waverly Road from the Capital City Airport to Onondaga, which is about
26 miles, is one of 13 priority areas in the tricounty region. This
project falls nearly in the center of it.


These
corridor projects “should be given priority so these communities can
develop non-motorized circulation systems as a necessary precursor for
connectivity to the regional system as it is developed,” the plan says.


But
these are merely goals, not a task list that will completed soon, said
Paul Hamilton, chief transportation planner with Tri-County Regional
Planning Commission.


“No one says this is going to happen overnight,” Hamilton said. “Those are not individual projects (like the Waverly sidewalk). There is simply a need to build this system to facilitate interregional travel.”

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