March 9 2016 01:12 PM

A trail of tears the River Trail degrades

The northern access point to the Rivertrail's path under Oakland Avenue. The section has been closed off because consultants for the county have determined it is in serious disrepair.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

Just west of Elm Street, the city of Lansing’s River Trail pathway is crumbling.

About half of the pavement is gone, undermined by water from the river and run-off, says Parks and Recreation Director Brett Kaschinske. The area has been blocked off with bright orange cones.

Farther north, the stairway from Michigan Avenue to the River Trail by the Lansing Center is closed. The steel support beams are so degraded that last year a consultant for the county warned that it could collapse during use.

And four blocks north of there, the trail under Oakland Avenue is so dangerous that it’s been closed since last fall. Consultants said Monday night that it is in such bad shape, if it were open it would have to be inspected “every couple of days” in order to make sure people using it were safe.

These sections of the trail and other desperately need rehabilitation, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Kachinske said this week. But to do that, the city needs funds.

A letter from Bernero submitted to the Ingham County Trails and Parks Task Force Monday night identifies critically needed repairs at four locations, The city said repairs on the Elm Street section, a section further south from Elm and the Oakland underpath would cost more than $700,000. It offered no estimate for fixing the Lansing Center portion of the trail.

Bernero wants county officials to free up millions of dollars collected through the special trail and park millage so that the city can begin making improvements. The millage was approved in 2014 and over its six-year lifespan is expected to net the county about $20 million, Ingham County Trails and Parks Task Force Chairwoman Teri Banas said.

The county collected $3.35 million last year and expects another another $3.41 million this year. A contract with Ohio-based Mannik Smith Group for $73,514 is the only expense incurred under millage monies so far.

The contract paid the group to conduct a trailways inventory, as well as evaluate the condition of the counties various trails. The consulting contract also sought input into where best to develop new trailways in the county.

The report found that 84 areas of paved pathways in various county trailways systems needed immediate repair. It also found that 20 bridges in the system were in some stage of disrepair. The cost alone for all the bridge upgrades is estimated at $20 million.

Many of those areas in need of repair are on Lansing’s 20-mile long River Trail. Bernero said the process to figure out how to divvy up the millage pie has taken too long. “The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe was put together in less time,” he said.

That Mannik Smith Group report is still not finalized, and the county is seeking additional information. The full Board of Commissioners expects to approve a finalized plan this month.

The millage was originally opposed by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. The reason? There was no comprehensive plan on how and where to spend the money raised.

Those issues still concern for the business advocacy group. In a memo sent to commissioners last week, Steve Japinga, director of government relations at the chamber, hammered county officials for the delays.

“As we enter year two of the tax capture ([roughly] $7 million collected from taxpayers as of today), it is clear that commissioners are still divided on how the dollars should be allocated,” Japinga wrote. “Yes, we understand that the County Board of Commissioners established a task force, hosted town halls, conducted surveys and even contracted with a consulting firm that has provided a list of areas that the millage dollars could address immediately. However, our initial concerns have proved true, as today we are still awaiting action from this task force.”

On Monday night, the task force forwarded a resolution to the full commission for action which would turn the cash spigot on.

Under the resolution, the county would free up just over $6 million for use. It provides $200,000 to the county to use as as a match to leverage additional government and private grants for projects in two county parks.

The plan calls for spending $173,514 to pay for support of the county parks through various improvements including upgrading bathrooms and purchasing needed equipment. The allocation includes payment for Mannik Smith Group.

Also, the resolution would provide $1 million for trail repair and rehabilitation, $4.5 million for bridge replacement and $338,342 for county park upkeep and maintenance.

Task Force members approved a grant application for communities as well and are hoping to push the full process through the commission before a self-imposed deadline of April 1. That’s when the county would like to begin accepting applications for the funding from local governments.

They would close that application process — designed for the most critical need infrastructure problems identified by consultants — June 1. Final approval of spending would require approval of the Board of Commissioners.

The hitch? Municipalities will have to spend the money they are seeking from their own budgets and then be reimbursed by the county.

That could be an issue for Lansing, said Kaschinske.

“We do not [have the money],” he said.

“We did not include this in our budget proposal we put in.”

Commissioners interviewed after the meeting Monday said the reimbursement scheme would help keep communities accountable for the funding and how it is spent.

Banas and Jared Cypher, Ingham County’s deputy controller, said the county “would work with” Lansing and other municipalities to overcome those potential financial obstacles.

Bernero, however, said he opposes the approach to allocating the funding. He called it “competitive and divisive” in an interview and in a letter to county officials.

“We need a competitive and cooperative approach instead of a fragmented and balkanized one,” Bernero wrote in his letter. “We need to work together and address this process with the theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

He supports using the millage funds in other communities — but said the need in Lansing is urgent. He specifically noted that the Lansing River Trail was in the millage approved by voters, which he believes means the money should be available immediately for the trail.

“Fifty percent of the people who use it are not from Lansing,” he said, He sees it as a regional asset, like Potter Park Zoo and believes that regional funding mechanism has worked out well.