Jan. 6 2011 12:00 AM

Public safety funding amid tight economic times is stirring the pot on a sidewalk project in Lansing and Lansing Township

This story was updated Jan. 5.

Veteran political analyst Bill Ballenger sits in the living room of his Waverly Road house, the first house north of the bridge over the Grand River in Lansing Township.

Outside of his living room window, there is controversy brewing about whether the city and Lansing Township should undergo a $1.3 million sidewalk project.

He thinks Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is trying to destroy a portion of this property for little more than political points. He wonders why the mayor was “gesticulating” in the road for TV cameras this week, a road that’s in Lansing Township. And Ballenger thinks $1.3 million is an “insane” amount of money for a sidewalk that serves “mostly power-walking women from Moores Park” and “foot traffic from Jolly Road that is mostly lower income, largely African American.”

“People around here are stupefied about why you’d want to spend that much for this project,” Ballenger said. “He’s selling it on the basis of public safety. That idea is manufactured. If he wants to do it (Complete Streets), fine — but do it in your own backyard.”

He also wonders if the money could be better spent elsewhere.

The Waverly Road Non-Motorized Pathway project covers portions of the township and the city. The plan extends the River Trail to connect Frances Park and the west entrance of Grand River Park, both of which are in the city. But that happens via Waverly and Old Lansing roads through Lansing Township. And for now, the township portion is generating the most controversy.

Bernero trumpets the project as cooperative regionalism and a commitment to Complete Streets policies. Costs would be split between the city and the township, and project approval rests with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, which covers Eaton, Ingham and Clinton counties.

Right now, passersby walk down a 1-foot-wide path to get from the north side of the Grand River to Old Lansing Road. Everyone seems to understand that, even Ballenger, except for state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who got involved this week. He declared the project “Virg’s Bridge to Nowhere” in a press release Monday in which he said residents have called him to complain.

Freya Rivers, who has lived in the Waverly Hills subdivision — where Ballenger also lives — that surrounds the area since 1993, agrees with Ballenger: The costs are too high, Bernero should mind his own city’s business and drastic changes could harm the look of the neighborhood.

“We’re interested in maintaining the aesthetics and integrity of our subdivision,” she said. “At this time, I want to know where these funds are coming from, who’s going to pay for it and why this is being done at this time.”

She adds that public safety is not much of a concern because she lets passersby use her front lawn to cut across to Old Lansing Road and no accidents have been reported.

Tim Ross, who has lived at the one-story house on the corner of Waverly and Old Lansing roads for about 15 years, scoffs at Jones’ notion that “the old beaten path is rarely used.” Ross’ multiple dogs bark at people each time they walk by.

“People walk by here every day,” Ross said. He added that he has to zig-zag himself across the Waverly/Old Lansing intersection to get to the Shell gas station across the street. “It’s just not safe.”

But then again, Ross offers a balanced perspective on what’s going on. The area is unsafe, but he understands Ballenger’s concerns about changing the landscape at the expense of tax payers. “There would have to be major work done.”

In the end, Ross supports the project, because people walk the path that hugs Waverly Road everyday — not just affluent power walkers from Moores River. “The people who use that path don’t drive — that’s why they walk it.”

Emily Quintero, group sales coordinator at the YMCA on Old Lansing Road, lives just south of the Grand River near Waverly Road. She said she would probably walk to work “if there was a safe route.”

She adds that customers who would like to exercise on nice days avoid it there because there are no safe routes nearby.

“My point of view as a health-seeker is that it would be beneficial, as well as important for public safety,” she said. Quintero adds that she is not bothered by Bernero coming out to the township to lobby for it.

But she pauses at the $1.3 million price tag — “I don’t know about that,” she said.

In March 2008, the Lansing City Council stirred over a similar type of project on Northrup Street between Jolly and Miller roads in the second ward. That cost $1.16 million. Former Second Ward Councilwoman Sandy Allen, who originally opposed the project based on some residents’ desire to keep the street looking rural, ultimately voted for a slimmed-down compromise of the plan. At the time, some with the city speculated this cost her in the next election by losing her walkable, bikeable constituents.

Perhaps that is the ultimate question: Does public safety trump slim budgets, or vice versa?