By David Loomis
INDIANA – When it comes to a decade-long plan to build a roughly $3 million bridge to bear bike and foot traffic safely above busy U.S. routes 119 and 22 at Blairsville, supervisors of neighboring Burrell Township see something that apparently has eluded every other local official:
- it would be unsafe
- it would be shunned by citizens
- it would be a waste of taxpayer money
So summarized Burrell board of supervisors Chairman Larry Henry in a Nov. 21 phone interview from his township office. He added that the proposed bike-and-hike-bridge project was frivolous.
“This is just for play,” Henry said in a Nov. 21 phone interview from his township office. “It doesn’t help anybody, you understand?”
GOT IT. Walking, bicycling, recreating and commuting don’t help anybody, contrary to recommendations of a comprehensive countywide plan prepared by local citizens and officials throughout Indiana County.
The plan, including a 77-page transportation study, was adopted unanimously by the county Board of Commissioners in 2012 after lengthy research and public hearings. Title: “More People Biking & Walking More Often.” In their September 2012 resolution of adoption, county commissioners asserted that the plan “is beneficial to the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the County.”
Evidently, the commissioners did not consult Mr. Henry and his fellow supervisors.
The project is listed as the transportation plan’s top priority. On Page 27, the plan reads, the bridge would help connect several existing regional trails, including the Hoodlebug, the West Penn and the Blairsville Riverfront, all managed by the county’s Parks and Trails Department.
Benefits of building the bridge and connecting the trails include letting users “to efficiently and effectively travel between Saltsburg Borough, Blairsville Borough, Indiana Borough, and Ebensburg Borough in Cambria County. This would allow for increased tourism and commuter opportunities.”
It’s all about “creating connections,” according to a supporting 2017 study by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
SOUNDS BENEFICIAL, all right. But, as Mr. Henry questions, helpful to how many?
Consider the 36-mile Ghost Town Trail, which runs right to Mr. Henry’s township office door. A 2009 study of the trail’s users and their spending habits reported numbers:
- an estimated 75,557 annual user-visits on the trail
- trail users spent $1.7 million between April and October of that year.
Those connections would be helpful to Mr. Henry’s constituents and his neighbors — in Blairsville, for example. But Mr. Henry disputes the data. He estimates trail usage at “probably a couple hundred people on a usual basis.”
However, he acknowledged a problem with his counter-estimate.
“I don’t have any data,” Mr. Henry said. “How do you get numbers on something that doesn’t exist?”
SUGGESTION: Mr. Henry and his fellow Burrell supervisors might check with their peers in every other municipal jurisdiction involved in the county’s hiking-and-biking effort. According to the county’s Office of Planning & Development, not one other local entity shares Burrell’s opposition.
One reason for its popularity might be that the grant-funded project won’t cost Burrell or any other municipality a nickel.
“I would understand if we asked them to toss in a couple hundred thousand bucks,” Jeffrey S. Raykes, county deputy director of planning, said in a Nov. 21 phone interview. “But in this case, we’re going to pay for it, inspect it and maintain it.”
Could the project proceed without the three current Burrell supervisors’ support?
“Yes, mechanically, we can,” Raykes said. “But, politically, we don’t want to leave the impression that we want to jam something down people’s throats.”
ADMIRABLE. But if Burrell supervisors insist on being a missing link in the county’s transportation connections, then their ill-explained opposition need not prevent progress for the rest.
David Loomis, Ph.D., retired associate professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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