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Monday, March 18,2013

Prioritizing a sidewalk

The proposed Waverly Road sidewalk project goes before the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission with mixed reviews and a Wood-Bernero quarrel

by Andy Balaskovitz
Thursday, April 21 — Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and City Councilwoman Carol Wood are at odds again, this time over the proposed Waverly Road sidewalk project.

A committee of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission voted last week against moving ahead on Bernero’s proposed project. One of the no votes in the 4-4 vote was Wood, who serves on the commission.

The proposed sidewalk would connect two portions of Lansing but must do so via Lansing Township. While the project is being promoted by the city, a majority of it is in the township.

Wood said Bernero is forcing the project upon the township, while Bernero said Wood is “monkeying” around with public safety.

“I don’t think we as a city should be putting in for other jurisdictions,” Wood said.

The committee’s vote was a recommendation to the commission. That 19-member body will vote Wednesday on whether to include the project on its “illustrative list,” which says the commission and affected jurisdictions are interested in pursuing funding options for the project.

Despite not getting the recommendation, Bernero hopes the project will move forward. He said building the sidewalk is “still the right thing to do” and thinks Wood is obstructing an important public safety project.

“I can’t imagine why Carol is monkeying with this. As usual she’s being obstructionist,” he said. “I know we’re going to save lives (by building it).”

While the illustrative list means funding is being pursued, Wood believes the administration is trying to rush the project. When asked why she is not supportive of exploring funding, Wood said that is just a ruse to move the project ahead as fast as possible.

“I’ve heard that before,” she said. “We’re not talking about 25 years down the line (when the project may be built). This is being pushed forward as fast as we can.”

Inclusion on the illustrative list does not guarantee the project will happen, said Susan Pigg, the commission’s executive director.

“By including it (on the illustrative list), we open up the conversation across the region. That’s what the Waverly Road project is — just some city staff people (determining) if it’s a good project,” she said, referring to representatives from multiple jurisdictions who serve on the commission.

The commission’s vote Wednesday is preceded by mixed recommendations from two committees.

A week before the motion to recommend the project failed in the transportation committee, the Capital Area Region Transportation Study Committee recommended the project’s inclusion on the illustrative list. While the study committee is more of a “technical committee” made up of engineers and planners who study things like asphalt depth and sidewalk width, the transportation committee is made up of elected officials who consider public input, Pigg said.

Brian McGrain, an Ingham County commissioner, was a yes-vote last week.

“I think this is a great potential project. My vote yes was so we could look into funding and see what options are out there,” he said.

The controversial proposal — dubbed the “sidewalk to nowhere” by state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge — calls for installing a new sidewalk north of Moores River Drive to Old Lansing Road along Waverly Road in Lansing Township. The sidewalk would continue along Old Lansing Road and connect to the west entrance of Grand River Park in Lansing. A majority of the sidewalk is in Lansing Township, but Lansing has offered to pursue grant opportunities. Whatever costs not covered by grants would be split between the two jurisdictions. The project is estimated at $2 million.

Township Supervisor John Daher has said he supports the project but only if funding is feasible. In August, he wrote a letter to the city saying that one way the township could cover its share of the costs is through applying Lansing Board of Water and Light “franchise fees” to township residents. He wrote: “Lansing Township would now like to establish a franchise fee and enjoy the advantages of such a revenue source that has benefited its neighboring municipalities for many years. The first project that would benefit from this source of funds would be providing the matching grant for the Waverly Road sidewalk proposed by the City of Lansing.”

Some of the latest controversy around the project is about a letter Lansing Public Service Director Chad Gamble sent to Daher March 30 asking if the township was ready to sign an “interlocal agreement” that spells out what each jurisdictions’ responsibilities would be for the project. Gamble wrote that if the project agreement was not signed by a certain date, “we will consider the Waverly Road Regional Non-Motorized Path Project dead.”

While one township trustee was furious about the letter and took it as a threat and “bullying” from the city, Lansing officials said it was nothing more than an effort to keep the project moving.

Supporters of the project say it would add a much-needed sidewalk and non-motorized transportation route in lieu of a dangerous 1-foot-wide footpath currently along Waverly Road — a path supporters say is used by both city and township residents.

Bill Ballenger, editor of the political newsletter “Inside Michigan Politics” and former Republican state representative, vehemently opposes the project. A potential sidewalk would directly affect Ballenger’s property. He is also president of the Waverly Hills Association, a neighborhood group made up of residents near the proposed project. He says the project is fiscally irresponsible.

Ballenger wrote an e-mail to Pigg on April 4 expressing his opposition. It read in part: “Those of us living in this area are the only ones who must LIVE with this wretched boondoggle, as opposed to those who want taxpayers in other units of government to subsidize it for the occasional pleasure of a handful of ‘users.’”

If the project doesn’t make the illustrative list after Wednesday’s vote, Pigg said Lansing planners can do “more engineering analysis” or revise portions of the plan that seem disagreeable to the commission. “They can also still seek funding, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to get it.”

Getting on the illustrative list is just the first step of the process, though, Pigg said. In order to secure federal or state funding, the project must be on the commission’s Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP, list. Pigg said getting on the TIP requires “more specific estimates of costs, engineering requirements met and environmental concerns addressed.”

“(The commission) developed a way to make sure the public and communities could have a preview of what each other was thinking in terms of big projects,” that make the TIP, she said. “That preview is the illustrative list.”

Pigg said while inclusion on the illustrative list is not required, it’s an important part of the process.

“From a regional perspective, it’s important to see how they (projects) fit with the vision of regional transportation,” she said. “We need to have those conversations ahead of time. That’s planning.”

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