By David Loomis
INDIANA — Last week, it finally dawned on Burrell Township supervisors that their lonely four-year fight against a decade-long effort to extend a regional network of bicycle and pedestrian pathways across their dominion lacked one critical supporting element:
A good reason.
At their July 17 board meeting, the supervisors appeared to face the fact that their arguments might have been contrived. They announced that the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development had revised and resubmitted the hike-and-bike plan they formally rejected on May 24.
That two-page rejection letter, signed by township board Chairman John Shields, expressed objections, for example, as a circular argument or as a mountain made out of a molehill.
— Circular argument:
“The plan does not adequately consider how bicycle and pedestrian traffic will access the north side of the pedestrian bridge, given that there is currently no bicycle or pedestrian trail in the vicinity of the proposed bridge site.”
Translation: Burrell supervisors themselves have gone so far to impede hiker and biker traffic to the designated bridge site as to remove trail markers posted along the way.
“The (April 11, 2013, PennDOT) email identifies US Route 422 as the right of way that bridge will be crossing over, when in fact Route 22 is the correct road that the proposed bridge would be constructed over.”
Translation: We can’t bother to correct a typo.
Now, county planners have addressed those concerns, and township supervisors are resigned.
“Our attorney told us there is nothing we can do to stop them if they comply,” said township supervisor Larry Henry at last week’s board meeting.
HENRY’S REGRET might offer instructive review of his colleagues’ other arguments over the past four years. Collectively they provide a case study of resistance to economic development amid rural decline in Northern Appalachia. Such a review may yield lessons for investing in regional infrastructure – such as broadband capacity – and for creative use of grant funding, among others.
Burrell supervisors had argued that the proposed hike-and-bike path and bridge to neighboring Blairsville would be unsafe, unpopular, frivolous and extravagant. Each of the arguments lacked evidence.
— Unsafe: In their May 24 official rejection of the bike-path project, the supers asserted that existing underpasses beneath U.S. Route 22 at the southern boundary of their township would be safer than the proposed foot bridge over the heavily traveled four-lane thoroughfare.
Their assertion lacked the sort of evidence that was amply provided in two earlier studies – including one by the state department of transportation – that concluded the contrary.
— Unpopular: Board chairman Henry estimated usage of the nearby interrupted Ghost Town Trail at maybe “a couple hundred people on a usual basis.” His evidence? “I don’t have any data,” Mr. Henry said. “How do you get numbers on something that doesn’t exist?”
Answer: A 2009 study of trail users reported an estimated 75,557 annual user-visits and $1.7 million in trail-user spending between April and October of that year.
More recent survey results showed supermajority support locally for the bike-path project in Burrell township and Blairsville borough.
A corollary to the supervisors’ claim of bike-path unpopularity was their suggestion, borrowed from the Mitch McConnell political playbook, to make the bike-path proposal a countywide referendum in 2019 elections.
Again, the supers seemed to neglect their homework. County commissioner candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, expressed majority support for the bike-path project.
— Frivolous: “This is just for play,” Mr. Henry described the project in a Nov. 21 phone interview from his township office. “It doesn’t help anybody, you understand?”
The county’s comprehensive plan, including a 77-page transportation study (“More People Biking & Walking More Often”) was adopted unanimously by the county Board of Commissioners after lengthy research and public hearings. 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.”
— Extravagant: Burrell supers argued that the $3 million cost of the proposed bridge over the U.S. Route 22 boundary between Burrell and neighboring Blairsville would be better spent on other needs. Two unaddressed questions:
1) Like what?
2) Would those other needs be funded at the same cost to township taxpayers as the grant-funded bike-path project – namely, zero dollars for construction and zero dollars for maintenance?
BURRELL SUPERVISORS SAY they expect to approve the hike-and-bike project at their August 21 meeting. Citizens who appreciate deliberative public policy and governance can regard it as one small step for regional progress — even if they still may wonder, why the four-year roadblock?
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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