Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Cycle of neglect, upkeep debates leave trail in dust

It looks older than its 22 years. Weeds grow from the cracked pavement on the abandoned bike path along the stretch of I-275 in Monroe County, making it an ugly stepsister to the slick gray freeway.

The 40-mile route, leading from its southern point at I-75 and Nadeau Road up through Wayne and into Oakland counties, once reflected dreams of visionary engineers. Now in disrepair throughout all three counties, cyclists can't even try to ride the eight-mile stretch in Monroe County. That closed in 1993, a mere 13 years after its opening.

The I-275 trail is the subject of intense interest to bicycle path advocates who want the Michigan Department of Transportation to make good on its promise of almost 30 years ago.

Engineers dreamed up the route in the 1970s, one of the longest in the state at that time, and built it when they laid the highway. But several problems plagued the $4 million project, including inferior construction.

“It was built at that time with the best reasonable expertise that could be applied to it, but it was not very good,” said Fred Dore, an engineer and board member of the League of Michigan Bicyclists.

Insufficient support, poor drainage, and low visibility all contributed to the path's decline; it needed significant maintenance to stay in shape. It didn't get it.

Ari Adler, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said that often the Department of Transportation will build something with the expectation that the local governments will take care of upkeep. If maintenance must be funded by MDOT, he said, then each project will face stiff competition for resources.

Monroe County officials said they couldn't find any record that MDOT had asked them to take over maintaining the trail.

Eventually, the Monroe County Roads Commission removed the trail's bridges.

“Without the bridges, there is no crossing. It's completely unusable,” said James Bogedain, chairman of the Monroe County Parks and Recreation Commission. “The parking lot has grown up in weeds, the asphalt is not topped, and weeds and grass grow through it.”

Mr. Bogedain remembered the path getting regular use when the asphalt was still smooth and safe. Other long-time county residents shared similar memories of bikers and skaters zipping along the trail.

Now some advocates hope to make those memories live by rehabilitating the path.

The League of Michigan Bicyclists is one of Michigan's primary advocacy groups for nonmotorized transportation, such as walking, inline skating and biking. Mr. Dore said they've been working to build a coalition around the I-275 trail for about five years, because the route is a critical trunk line, linking different bicycle trails in southeast Michigan.

Local governments in Monroe County are interested in the trail as well. Jim Spas, supervisor of Frenchtown Township, said bicycle trails appeared in recent budget meeting discussions. Bike trails made the wish list during surveys of residents in Monroe County and Frenchtown Township, officials said.

Lack of desire isn't preventing trail improvement, Mr. Dore said, but lack of money is.

“The sticky part is in who pays for it,” he said. “That's where everybody wants to run and hide.”

Mr. Dore said once a coalition of users, businesses, governments, and park authorities coalesces, he hopes they can convince the transportation department to refurbish and maintain the trail.

Federal highway legislation requires that transportation departments use funds for non-motorized transport, Mr. Dore said.

“We don't believe that MDOT should be able to run away from their non-motorized transportation responsibility,” he said.

Transportation officials didn't see that happening.

Although the department is trying to perform some maintenance along the path, they won't be able to do any major fixing, Mr. Adler said.

“When you look at cycling in Michigan, bike paths are still a recreational facility,” he said. “They're competing with roads that are vital links to our communities and our businesses. That's what we have to spend our money on.”

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