By Logan Hullinger
INDIANA — A proposed grant-funded bike trail through the borough sparked lively debate at two council meetings in one week. At a Jan. 28 meeting, residents echoed one of several citizen objections to the multimodal-corridor plan:
“Now we cater to the college kids,” said resident Ronald Benlin, quoted in the Jan. 29 edition of The Indiana Gazette and echoed by others. “They don’t pay taxes, and they tear up the town.”
At a crowded public hearing at Tuesday’s council session, citizens again opposed the plan, although some expressed support for bicycling.
Meanwhile, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania official countered the critique of college kids by providing figures on the students’ annual financial footprint on the local and the statewide economies. The economic impact is substantial and beneficial, the official reported.
“IUP has a total impact of $636,938,964 on Pennsylvania’s economic well-being,” wrote university spokeswoman Michelle S. Fryling in a Feb. 1 email.
’Now we cater to the college kids. They don’t pay taxes, and they tear up the town.’
— Local resident Ronald Benlin, quoted in the Jan. 29 edition of The Indiana Gazette
Every academic year, students roughly double the borough’s year-round population of 14,194, according to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau estimate.
And the 14-campus Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which includes IUP, reports a total statewide economic impact of $6.7 billion a year, according to a 2015 study by Pittsburgh accounting firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause. Every dollar spent by the university system returns $12.16 to the economy, the study reported.
The borough’s proposed bike-path plan stems from a $1.7 million grant offered under a federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program. Since 1991, the program has provided money administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation “to support surface transportation projects and other related efforts that contribute air quality improvements and provide congestion relief,” according to the Federal Highway Administration website.
Byron G. Stauffer Jr., executive director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development, said the money originally was earmarked for construction related to the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.
“The CMAQ dollars were originally secured for intersection improvements around the KCAC,” Stauffer said in an email interview Tuesday. “Those improvements were not required following a traffic study conducted one year after the KCAC opened.”
Stauffer did not respond to follow-up emails asking what would happen to the $1.7 million if the bike-lane grant doesn’t get a green light from local authorities, including county, White Township and university officials.
SOME IUP students, meanwhile, said they supported the project.
John P. Page, a bicycle commuter and sophomore finance major at IUP, said he doesn’t understand public opposition to it.
“The bike lane would be great,” Page said Thursday at his Elm Street residence. “It would make it a lot easier to bike here. The sidewalks are bad as it is. I don’t get why some people don’t approve of it. The money’s there, and it’d be a good addition to Indiana.”
James P. Smith Jr., a senior political science major at IUP and a freshman member of the borough council, said he supports the bike-path proposal.
“Any opportunity we have to improve infrastructure, especially roads, for a fraction of the cost, that proposal should be seriously considered,” Smith said in a Friday email. “The claims that this is about catering to the college students are absurd. There is a community of bikers all throughout Indiana. Many members of the community regularly will bike to work or to other activities. I believe it’s time we offer them a safe passageway through our community.”
Smith said economic development could be another benefit.
“Throughout the past year I have talked to a countless number of individuals all who support this kind of improvement to our community,” Smith said. “We are a town that is going through some changes, and we need to look to attract younger citizens by offering the amenities that they are looking for in a community.”
On Thursday, an IUP representative told council members that the university is studying various bike routes that could cross the campus and connect with the proposed multimodal corridor. Council President Peter Broad said members are scheduled to receive a study committee’s recommendation on April 5.
White Township supervisors voted 3-2 in May 2015 to commit their $30,000 share of the project’s local contribution.
Logan Hullinger, a sophomore journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania from Clarion, is a staff reporter for The HawkEye. He can be contacted at L.R.Hullinger@iup.edu.