Crossing the Border
After inching along for decades, the Border-to-Border Trail is racing toward the finish line.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the November, 2019 issue
It's been a busy summer and fall along Huron River Dr. west of town: trees have been razed, shrubbery uprooted, paths and boardwalks built, and two bridges engineered across the Huron River. The construction between Dexter-Huron Metropark and Zeeb Rd. is part of an accelerated push to complete a continuous network of recreational trails throughout the county for use by bicyclists, walkers, wheelchairs, and runners.
Work will continue through the winter as the Border-to-Border (B2B) Trail inches closer to Ann Arbor. All this activity is part of an ambitious and expansive master plan for a trail system which, when complete, will total seventy miles and extend to Livingston, Wayne, and Jackson counties. And it's happening much faster than anyone imagined even five years ago.
Peter Sanderson, principal park planner for Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission (WCPARC), says clearing new sections will continue until the end of March--when it will be suspended for the summer to avoid disrupting roosting bats. Paving will end in early November, when asphalt plants close. "But our crews can do other work throughout the winter, weather permitting: boardwalk construction, the timber sections, and fences."
The county has been working on the B2B since 1984. But with construction costs averaging $1 million a mile--and each bridge another $1 million--it was inching along toward a completion date in the 2030s. But the opening of the Dexter-Hudson Mills Trail in 2013 generated "a ton of interest and enthusiasm" for recreational trails throughout the county, Sanderson says--and greatly accelerated the timeline.
"Our primary focus now is on the gap between Dexter and Ann Arbor," he says. Although getting as far as Zeeb has provided engineering and construction challenges, those are minor compared to what lies ahead for planners, municipal administrators, engineers, and construction crews as they work to link with the eastbound section of the trail in Ann Arbor. At the intersection of N. Main, M-14, and Bandemer Park, a tunnel and several other engineering
feats will be needed to connect to the U-M Hospital and on to Gallup Park, where Ann Arbor's trail system began in the 1980s.
"Between 2018 and 2020, we'll finish twenty miles of pathways," Sanderson points out. "The Huron River stretch is a complicated project requiring many permits, but environmental sensitivity is at the forefront of our concerns--particularly near the Huron River. We are taking great care to make sure there is no negative impact on the wildlife or the river. After all, the river is the county's most important natural resource."
Still on his to-do list: meeting engineering standards and completing the permit process for acquiring easements--not only with property owners, but with the road commission, railroad, and utilities. "We hope that future segments will be more streamlined, but the Huron River section connecting to Main St. is definitely the most challenging."
On an average day, 200 bicyclists and an unknown number of people on foot pedal, walk, or run down Huron River Dr., dodging teenage drivers, garbage trucks, commuters, and delivery vans. On sunny weekends, that number can rise as high as 600.
"The most critical reason behind the push for nonmotorized pathways is safety," says Jeff Hardcastle, a Chelsea business owner and recreational biker who has spearheaded grassroots financial support for the B2B as founder and president of the Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative. "The more people we can get off the roads and onto well-constructed trails and pathways, the safer we all will feel."
These pathways are ten feet wide, paved, and compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. Along with safety, Hardcastle points out, they offer free recreation to residents and visitors alike. They'll soon feature environmental and cultural education kiosks and signage as well.
In the 1980s, the city commissioned studies about a "Huron River Greenway" corridor for recreation and nonmotorized transportation, explains WCPARC director Coy Vaughn. "The B2B took different forms over the years, particularly when Parks & Rec took the project on in the late 1990s." WCPARC began building trails as money and personnel allowed.
In 2001, the first trail section was complete, linking Washtenaw Community College and St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. "Our goal was to connect the east end of Gallup Park with downtown Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti," Sanderson says. "Between 2001 and 2007, we partnered with Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and the road commission to make that a reality."
"For twenty years we could only afford one mile of trail construction every year or two," explains Roy Townsend, B2B project manager and former managing director of the Washtenaw County Road Commission. But in 2015, the B2B was incorporated into then-governor Rick Snyder's vision for the Iron Belle Trail, a 1,259-mile hiking trail and a 774-mile bicycling route connecting Ironwood, in the U.P., with Detroit's Belle Isle. When complete, the Iron Belle will be the longest designated state trail in the U.S.
"Since our plans for trails were already underway, we've been used as a model for the trail system," Vaughn says. And B2B got a financial boost in 2016, when Washtenaw voters passed a road millage that dedicated 20 percent of the funds to nonmotorized pathways.
Another boost came from Chelsea. Early trail plans hadn't included the city--but residents decided they wanted in. They formed a nonprofit called the Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative.
"The HWPI started out as a very Chelsea-centric organization," explains executive director Susan Faulkner. "People in Chelsea saw that wonderful trail stretching from downtown Dexter to Hudson Mills Metropark and wanted something similar for their community. But the organization--and its vision--grew incrementally in a very short time."
In 2014, Hardcastle and thirteen friends met to discuss the possibility of duplicating the Dexter-to-Hudson Mills trail somewhere around Chelsea. They "scratched together a few thousand dollars for maps" and began spreading the word to local businesses and philanthropists.
"It's not hard to raise money for a good cause in Chelsea," Hardcastle says. By spring of 2015, Chelsea Milling Company and Chelsea State Bank had both pledged $25,000.
"But our vision changed almost immediately, as soon as we began researching ways to get state funding," Hardcastle adds. "We realized that it would be easier to get support if we expanded our focus and thought regionally." Soon, they were "advocating for pathways throughout the western part of the county."
Response was so enthusiastic for their expanded vision that "when we applied to the state for support, we already had the matching funds raised--that almost never happens," Hardcastle says. "Generally, the process works the other way around."
HWPI's reach expanded further in 2016, when leaders met with WCPARC and other nonprofits to build support for trails throughout the county. The partnership eventually enlisted fifteen more organizations, including the Legacy Land Conservancy and the Five Healthy Towns Foundation (which Hardcastle also heads), Washtenaw cities and townships, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, and the state departments of transportation and natural resources.
The state committed $1.88 million to the pathways initiative, and MDOT offered another $300,000 for the construction of a trail from Chelsea north on M-52 to North Territorial and on to Green Lake.
Faulkner, an avid bicyclist, started as a volunteer with the HWPI soon after the death of her friend Karen McKeachie, who was killed while bicycling on Dexter-Chelsea Rd. in 2016. The winner of seven world triathlon championships, McKeachie was also an environmentalist who had been instrumental in preserving 240 acres in Scio Township.
"I wanted to make sure no one else would suffer Karen's fate and that her legacy would be remembered," Faulkner says. As the HWPI continued to grow in scope and ambition, she was hired as executive director. She now has a staff of three, and Hardcastle anticipates further growth. Meanwhile, the HWPI board has expanded from the original thirteen to twenty-six people. "Only one-third of them are from Chelsea now," Hardcastle says. A twelve-member executive committee meets weekly with the staff.
Soon after the HWPI was founded, McKeachie's family pledged $1.1 million to the trail. "In Karen's honor, we're dedicating an informational kiosk to her on one of the bridges crossing the Huron River," Faulkner says.
In all, the organization has raised nearly $9 million dollars--"$4 million from local sources and $2.82 million from the Ralph Wilson Foundation," Hardcastle says. And "the Department of Natural Resources gave us $1.75 million beyond its normal funding."
HWPI recently raised $930,000 to replace a planned grade crossing at M-52 and Waterloo Rd. "When we went to Lansing to get approval for the tunnel, we told them, 'We don't need any money,'" he says. "They gave us their blessing." Next, he plans to concentrate on fundraising in the eastern part of the county.
"The Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative allowed us to create a new and expansive vision," Vaughn says. "No longer did we have to rely solely on [a] millage to build the B2B."
The HWPI's assistance has pulled the B2B's estimated completion date up by more than a decade. "Now we're aiming for 2020 or 2021," Hardcastle says. WCPARC administrators are slightly more cautious in their estimate: 2022 or 2023.
To facilitate the new timetable and expanded vision, Townsend was tapped to become project manager. Before retiring as managing director of the Washtenaw County Road Commission, he had supervised the construction of the Dexter-to-Hudson Mills project, among others.
"When the HWPI approached us and offered to help with funding, our timeframe for building pathways became considerably shorter and busier," Townsend says. "Now the pathways are funded by three entities--one-third by the HWPI, one-third by the state, and one-third by federal grants."
The acquisition of easements has so far been unexpectedly easy, Sanderson says. Most of the trail has been built in road or railroad right-of-ways, although the HWPI did purchase two private properties.
"We found that process much easier than the county would have," Hardcastle says. "We closed on the land in 120 days, thanks to our private dollars. The county would have had to take much longer."
Currently, forty miles of trails are complete. Soon seventy miles of pathways will link to trails in Stockbridge, Pinckney, Jackson, and Wayne County.
Construction began on the 1.2-mile trail from Zeeb to Dexter-Huron Metropark in February. Due to the terrain and the two bridges needed to take walkers and bikers across the river, this stretch has been the most costly to date, at $4.5 million--$3.1 million from grants and the rest from WCPARC and HWPI. An additional 1.4 miles of trail will connect to the trail already existing in Dexter.
"So far we've spent upwards of $16 million, and we will need as much as $30 million before everything is done," Townsend estimates. By the time the blueprints become reality, the B2B will run thirty-five miles along the river from Ypsilanti to Dexter, while the twenty-nine-mile Huron Waterloo Pathway will link Dexter, Chelsea, Stockbridge, the Lakelands Trail, and Pinckney in a continuous loop.
Meanwhile, land movers are roaring, saws are whining, nailguns are popping, and progress is being made daily.
"Since we had already gotten a strong start on our B2B system, we have become a kind of poster child for the Iron Belle Trail, a fact that has helped us with state funding," Vaughn says. "We work closely with other counties, coordinating our efforts so no one has to reinvent the wheel."
When the B2B construction is complete, its vision and mission will continue--as will construction on new pathways and trails into Stockbridge, Pinckney, and adjacent counties. Townsend is already working to connect the new Watkins Lake State Park to the village and township of Manchester. And he hasn't forgotten Saline or Pittsfield Township.
"Every day a half-dozen people stop their cars and walk over to ask us about the trail and check on its progress," Townsend says. "This is a project that will benefit everyone in our community in one way or another: with recreation, safer roads, environmental education, and exercise."
"I'm humbled by the amount of support given to this project," Hardcastle says. "We've been very fortunate with our donors, our partners, and the existence of so many immediate and buildable easements."
Based on similar projects in Indianapolis and elsewhere, he suggests that the trail system could realize 400,000 "unique usages" per year--"which may exceed the number of cars traveling on nearby roads annually."
[Originally published in November, 2019.]
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