By David Loomis
INDIANA – Burrell Township supervisors last month took another swipe at a proposed bike path and bridge across their turf. Supervisor Dan Shacreaw spoke for the three-member board and against supporters of the proposal:
“We are not on board, we are not going to be on board, and that’s as far as it goes,” Shacreaw declared at the municipal lawmakers’ Feb. 20 meeting. “I don’t care if they say they’re trying to work with us or not. I am not for it, and I’m not going to be for it.”
For good measure, in case Shacreaw’s fact-free, my-way-or-the-highway rhetoric wasn’t persuasive, he offered a Plan B: Shelve the project until voters cast ballots in the county commissioners election this year – whether in the Nov. 5 general election, or in the May 21 primary election, or both, was not clear. In other words, Shacreaw would make the Burrell bike-path proposal a countywide referendum.
“They need to wait until new commissioners get on board, and then move forward with it if they want to,” Shacreaw said.
Board chairman Larry Henry added helpfully, “Why handcuff new commissioners to a project they may not support?”
TRUE, NEW county commissioners in November might not support a project whose grant-funded $3 million price tag costs them nothing. True, they might not support a traffic-safety initiative that separates bicyclists and pedestrians from heavy motor traffic. True, they might not support two-wheel commuting or tourism on an expanding network of trails from the Ohio River to the Potomac, including Indiana County. True, they might not support regional economic development.
Shacreaw did not respond to a March 1 message sent through his Burrell supervisor Facebook page.
So, how do announced candidates for county commissioner – four Republicans and two Democrats – respond to the Burrell bike-trail buck-pass? Five of the six candidates responded:
- Republican candidate Michael Keith said in a Feb. 28 phone interview that he was non-committal but added that he would consult retiring Commissioner Rodney Ruddock for guidance. (Ruddock, a Republican, wrote in a March 1 email: “I continue to favor” the project he voted for in 2012.)
- Republican candidate Maria Lawer Jack was non-committal in a Feb. 28 email but described herself as “an avid trail rider!”
- Republican candidate Bob Colgan said in a Feb. 26 phone interview, “I see no problem letting new commissioners take a look at it.” He added, “We can’t have the few to hold up progress for the many.”
- Democratic candidate Don Lancaster recalled his vote for a bike path through Indiana borough to neighboring White township, for the benefit of both. “Go for it,” he advised in a Feb. 25 phone interview. “These things make for a better place.”
- Democratic county Commissioner Sherene Hess in a March 3 email wrote, “This is exactly the kind of activity that rural areas that have experienced decline in the last many decades can benefit from.” She added: “The time to act is now, and by not doing so we risk losing funding and momentum.”
- Republican candidate Robin Gorman did not respond to a Feb. 27 email.
Memo to Burrell supervisors: The candidates’ responses so far suggest more support for the bike path project than opposition.
MAYBE Burrell supervisors are just trying to run out the clock to kill an infrastructure project they oppose for reasons not clearly articulated – although, for the record, board chairman Henry has knocked the project for being “just for play.”
Byron G. Stauffer Jr., executive director of the county’s office of planning and development, the agency that laid the groundwork that won the support of county commissioners and state and federal authorities years ago, noted that the clock has been running for a long time.
“All existing planning documents have been in place for many, many years,” Stauffer recounted in a Feb. 26 phone interview. “This project was already well on its way before (current Burrell supervisors) took office.”
If Burrell supervisors are trying a stall to derail the project, then enforceable planning codes say they have some explaining to do, Stauffer advised.
“They have to cite their rationale,” Stauffer said. “They can’t just abruptly tell us no.”
He added: “Courts are remedies prescribed in planning codes.”
To the legal and judicial incentives, Stauffer added an economic-development carrot. Blairsville’s Chestnut Ridge Golf Resort & Conference Center and the riverfront borough itself stand to benefit from the bike-trail project.
“Blairsville is preparing infrastructure to build new housing – single- and multi-family and condos – to attract young people,” Stauffer said.
The riverfront borough’s planning process features kayaking on the Conemaugh and biking on the region’s trails – all endorsed by Blairsville representatives. The effort could help stem the borough’s population decline of 4 percent since the 2010 Census. The economic ripples could buoy neighboring Burrell.
THE QUESTION for Burrell supervisors is not whether county voters support the bike trail. The voters have cast ballots in three local elections since the non-controversial transportation plan and bike-path project were adopted unanimously by county commissioners in 2012.
Instead, the question for voters is why Burrell supervisors continue to roadblock it.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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