UG Commission balks at spending $750,000 on three-tenths of a mile bike trail

The Unified Government Commission on Thursday, Aug. 27, balked at spending three-quarters of a million dollars for a bike trail that is three-tenths of a mile long.

The bike trail project, at Kaw Point, went over budget. The UG was receiving a grant for the project, with the state handling the grant, and the grant is about two-thirds of the cost of the project, according to UG officials. The UG’s portion of the cost overrun, $250,000, was already included in the budget that had been passed by the UG.

The grant may expire if it is not bid in the upcoming Kansas Department of Transportation bid-letting, said County Engineer Bill Heatherman at the Aug. 27 meeting.

The project was originally approved in 2013 by the UG. The grant then was $1.2 million in federal funds and the UG match was $510,000 for a total project cost of $1,726,000, according to Heatherman.

The UG was asked this month to contribute an additional $250,000 to the project, and the total project cost went up to $2.7 million.

The bike trail length, from the Kaw Point Park to the Riverfront Heritage trail end, was three-tenths of one mile, he said.

Commissioner Ann Murguia, who was the one dissenting vote in the Standing Committee discussion of this issue earlier this month, said she was disappointed.

She said it was a lot of money to spend on a three-tenths of a mile bike trail. She said she also was concerned to hear it was already approved in the budget process.

“I’m concerned when we have a $250,000 increase in the cost of a project, that it should have been discussed in a public setting,” Commissioner Murguia said. The commission did not discuss this cost overrun before the budget was approved.

Commissioner Murguia and Mayor Mark Holland are both avid bicyclists.

Mayor Holland said Wyandotte County has been behind the rest of the metropolitan area in bike and hike trails. The trails out of Johnson County north of the river and from Missouri don’t have access here. This trail comes across the river and into the community but there is no connection. This is the last connector piece, he said.

It is in a tangled traffic area, he said, where there is a need for the connector trail. In the north of Fairfax a new bridge is being built, and it will have a hiking and biking path on it to connect Wyandotte County for the first time to the extensive hiking trails north of the river, according to the mayor.

“My stated goal is to open up our levees for hike and bike trails,” Mayor Holland said. This connector will open up dozens of miles of Wyandotte County hike and bike trail to active use, he said.

“It’s the missing piece we’ve been working on for a number of years,” he said.

The community also has received a grant from the Mid-America Regional Council for a bike trail for a north-south bike trail on 10th and 12th streets to connect from the Johnson County line to the north to Fairfax, he said. In the next 12 months, the community could be fully integrated into the hike and bike trails for the metro area, he added.

Commissioner Hal Walker said when the drainage district boards agree to let the public use their levees for bike paths, he would vote for it.

“I’m not going to agree to throw good money after bad,” Commissioner Walker said. “At this point it is not worth the linkage to throw another $250,000 into this.”

“We’ll never link up with the Kaw Valley Drainage District; they refuse to let the public utilize those structures,” he said. And those are natural already-built structures that could be utilized, he added.

Mayor Holland said Kaw Valley Drainage District has opened a test section of its levee from the Procter and Gamble plant area at 18th and Kansas Avenue.

In response to a question from Commissioner Angela Markley, Heatherman said the $750,000 could probably be enough to pay for about 7,600 feet, a little over a mile, of sidewalks. However, the cost all depends on the area where the sidewalk or trail is being built, he said. Building them on or near bridges is more expensive.

The project was more about the linkage it provides to the area around it, not the length of it, according to Heatherman.

“Kaw Point Park is a major national historical site, and all the momentum we’ve had lately is about building that park, making it more accessible and making it a focal point,” Heatherman said. “It is not possible as a pedestrian, to get to that point. There is no safe route.”

Those who want to bike there now have to bring the bikes in on cars.

“All that’s there now is a three-foot sidewalk with a crumbling sidewalk stair, going down the bridge abutment,” Heatherman said.

He said there is now authorization to do a starter line, not on the top of the levee, but down on the riverbank at Fairfax, and those conversations have proceeded.

In answer to a question from Commissioner Melissa Bynum, Heatherman said the budget as adopted this summer makes provision for the addition of the $250,000 to the original $510,000. On Aug. 28 the staff was asking the commission to approve the debt financing for the project.

Commissioner Gayle Townsend, in whose district the project is located, encouraged the commission to go through with the project for the long-term benefits of it. She cited projects in the Fairfax district, improvements at Kaw Point Park, and plans for future festivals there.

“This is just completing the many improvements that have been down there,” she said.

Commissioner Brian McKiernan pointed out the two-to-one ratio of federal funds to local and asked Heatherman about the chances the UG could get a similar match of grant money for this in the future. Heatherman said this was a special trail-only fund, and he is not anticipating to see that much money available currently.

“If we sacrifice this project right now our credibility with the Mid-America Regional Council and with KDOT in one or two years will not be very high,” Heatherman said. “If it were only a question of waiting a couple of years, it would be my strong project management recommendation to say a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”

If it not a project the commission wants, he said the commission then would be making a final decision.

“NorthPoint development is putting about a half-million dollars of their project, for their $350 million industrial building, into improvements at Kaw Point Park,” Mayor Holland said. “This Kaw Point Park is becoming a focal point, not only of this community, but also of the region.”

He said there is significant improvement at the park and significant movement of hike and bike trails, and the reason MARC and KDOT want this link is because of the big picture of linking Kansas City, Kan., to the other communities.

“We have the once-in-a-life opportunity here where we’re going to leverage other people’s money to build a connector that the whole metropolitan area can use,” Mayor Holland said. “This capital investment puts Wyandotte County in keeping with the whole region and is the reason why people are willing to put big money into it, because of its importance.”

It would be a major lost opportunity, he said. While the cost has gone up and that’s a disappointment, it’s one of the things the UG can’t afford not to do, he said.

“This is a piece of the connection that to pass up at the 11th hour, I think, would be a huge policy mistake,” Mayor Holland said.

Commissioner Jim Walters said the trail dead-ends at Kaw Point Park right now. Mayor Holland said the UG has active proposals for opening the levee trails now, for Kaw Valley to the south and Fairfax to the north.

The mayor said Kansas City, Kan., is the only major city in the region that doesn’t have hiking and biking trails along the rivers now, and that it will eventually happen.

“If we don’t do this connector, it sabotages our ability to open those trails because it wouldn’t open it up to the whole metropolitan area,” Mayor Holland said.

The commission voted 5-4, with Commissioners Walker, Murguia, Mike Kane, Markley, and Walters voting against the project.

Mayor Holland then voted in favor of the project, and a tie of 5-5 was recorded, with the project failing.

Commissioner Bynum asked if the only objection was the additional dollars.

Commissioner Walker replied, “We won’t fund other necessary projects in this community that I won’t mention, but that would be $250,000. And we throw $250,000 at a connector trail to a park, not for the benefit of our community, primarily, but for the people elsewhere that want to use these trails. That’s how I see it. I’m angry about the fact that I can’t get funding for things that have been in this community for 160 years, and we’re worrying about a connector to a trail that leads to a park. And we think that’s going to bring what to this community? Great revenue, lots of people? I don’t see any benefit to the people that are paying the bill.”

He said the $2.1 million for three-tenths of a mile would have bought a lot more sidewalks in the neighborhoods that would get more use than the trail would.

“The people out west want a park, and we’ve got ground,” Commissioner Mike Kane said. “It wouldn’t take but $40,000 to put some stuff in an area that we already own, and that our people would use. I really don’t care if Johnson County comes over to use our stuff and if Missouri comes over to use our stuff. What I care about is our community, the people who pay the taxes, who live here.”

Heatherman said, in answer to a question from the mayor, that the project was being prepared by KDOT in the final stages to place on the October bid-letting, with advertisement planned in early September.

Commissioner Townsend said since the UG didn’t know the ramifications for not moving forward on the project, she asked for the issue to be brought back to the UG Commission at a later time for consideration again, and Mayor Holland agreed to bring it back later.

“I still believe that this is something that members of our community would use, and it’s just a step we need to take to complete it,” Commissioner Townsend said. She said the 5th Street connector project runs as far north as Garland Park and drops down to 7th Street.

The mayor asked Heatherman to get more information on what happens if the UG doesn’t move forward on it.

Commissioner Murguia later stated she was “disappointed” that the issue will be brought back, after a vote had been taken and the project was not approved.