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Orion and Oakland township safety paths to link?

January 23, 2013 - Orion's southeast side may soon have another cross-township connection.

If a proposed safety path project wins approval, residents may soon see a combination of asphalt paths, boardwalks, and pedestrian bridges running approximately ĺ of a mile on the west side of Adams Road between Delta Kelly Elementary School at Gunn Rd and north to the Paint Creek Trail.

Proponents say Oakland and Orion residents stand to benefit if the project proceeds. Instead of traveling on the public roadway, families could use a safer, multi-purpose path. The path will link with a trail at the north end of Delta Kelly Elementary School, and thus complete a non-motorized connection between the Paint Creek Trail and trails in the south end of the Bald Mountain Recreation Area.

Those in favor also envision the finalization of a non-motorized connection between the Paint Creek Trail and the Polly Ann Trails utilizing Orion Township, Oakland Township, and Bald Mountain trails.

Non-motorized consumer access to the Country Creek Commons shopping area located at Adams and Silver Bell Roads is another benefit expected if the connector trail project is approved.

The total cost of the connector path is estimated at $1.875 million. 41 percent of the funds ($778, 000) are to be covered by a voter-approved millage set aside specifically for this type of project.

To meet the remainder, Oakland Township received recommendation in 2011 for two grants. $300,000 is to come from a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) state grant. These funds come from leases collected when the DNR sells mineral rights for gas and oil exploration. The third piece will come from an $852,240 Transportation Enhancement federal grant.

According to the Oakland Twp. website, no new public dollars will be involved, as "funds for this project are currently budgeted, available and restricted to trail and path projects."

Oakland Township has acquired approximately seven of the nine necessary easements, and construction could begin as early as this coming spring.

The project is slated for a vote in the near future, possibly as early as Feb. 12. However, newly elected Oakland Twp supervisor Terry Gonser has a few reservations before he's willing to give the green light.

"I certainly don't have a position yet," Gonser said. "I'm trying to gather as much data as possible and make sure we weigh all the options. I come from an engineering background; many times there are different ways to get to the same end."

Gonser felt there are significant challenges remaining, nonetheless. One of the sticking points for Gonser is the use of federal funds for the safety path project.

"Obviously, a federal grant brings with it a lot of cost increases, " Gonser claimed. "I'd like to understand if we're increasing the cost because . . . federal specifications are much more stringent than state and local regulations."

Gonser said he believed there's an associated cost with federal regulations, so he wanted "to make sure we're not adding more cost than benefit."

Gonser also worried that potential detriments were being too quickly overlooked. "If you're going to put in a major construction project," Gonser reasoned, one should ask, "how does it affect the residents that actually live along there? What are the ramifications to their properties? Sometimes we tend to minimize that."

Gonser wants the board to be cognizant of the loss to the property owners alongside the proposed connector path route. He is concerned about removal of trees and increased noise and traffic proceeding through these resident's properties.

Though he concedes the parcels affected are "not a large number," Gonser is worried easements have been procured under duress.

"My understanding is the majority of the people have acquiesced," Gonser said. "I always question that because when the municipality comes to a landowner under a threat of 'if you don't agree we're gonna take it,' do people say yes because they can't afford an attorney, or do they say yes because they're fully supportive of what you want to do?"

So while some in favor of the connector path project were satisfied with the easements collected, Gonser remained skeptical. "A lot of people say 'see, we got the answers,' well, sometimes that's not reflective of what really happened."

On the other hand, the connector path is ostensibly a benefit for the township at large, so the perceived detriment to a few may be superseded by the gains for the majority. Yet Gonser wants to know if the touted benefits are "purely ethereal or are they actual?"

Gonser said of the benefits claimed, "safety is always thrown up first." He doubts the legitimacy of that claim however, since "often times safety is in the mind of the beholder." He said the accident rate on Adans Rd. has been very low.

"I was talking to the Sheriff about intersection safety," Gonser said, "and he indicated that the most difficult intersection because of line-of-sight and visibility is actually the safest intersection because everybody uses extra caution there."

Gonser also wants to be sure there is a real demand for the connector. In addition to doubts about safety claims, he questioned the number of people projected who may use it.

"That's always a guess," Gonser reasoned. "If you spend $2 million and only 25 people use it, is that a real benefit?

On the other hand, as Gonser admits, "these grants are time-limited, so if we don't respond quickly enough then we pass that window."

Many in the region share Gonser's impulse toward fiscal responsibility. Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner is one and is proud of the leadership Oakland County has shown in this area.

"Oakland County has a balanced budget, --- balanced three years out. We have a pension that is 100 percent funded, and we have a AAA bond rating. I think that we reflect best practices in budgeting and debt policy [and] are significantly under our permissible debt ceiling"

With these credentials, it is apparent that Meisner and Oakland County take fiscal responsibility very seriously.

It sounds as if Meisner and Gonser are in agreement on many issues. "If the question is: 'is the federal government being fiscally responsible, my answer is no. If the question is 'am I concerned about sovereign nations like Saudi Arabia and China owning alarmingly large percentages of U.S. debt,' the answer is, yes, I am concerned about that."

But that's where Gonser and Meisner part company.

"Now, whether or not it is productive to protest fiscal irresponsible polices by turning down federal dollars [at the township level], I have to leave that to each of the local elected officials to determine," Meisner said.

"As someone who worked in the federal government," he continued, "the best way to address concerns about federal policies is by the federal officials that we elect and through lobbying the federal government that you favor."

There is another factor Meisner would like to see brought into the discussion. Speaking as the county treasurer, he said "investments in the county add value to the county," he claimed. "So I favor investment in Oakland County: in the quality of life, in the local governments, in our infrastructure. Those are all things that promote higher property values, and promote the overall fiscal health of our local governments and our county government."

The Oakland Township Board of Trustees has set a tentative date of Feb. 12 for a vote on the connector trail, though Gonser indicated that may be too soon.

If you'd like more information on the proposed bike and safety path alongside Adams Road, see the plans at oaklandtownship.org. If you have any questions for the supervisor, he can be reached at tgonser@oaklandtownship.org or by calling 248-651-4440.

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