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BY BENJAMIN J. GOHS, NEWS EDITOR
Charlevoix County Commissioners are angry, frustrated and embarrassed that it’s been nearly a decade without construction beginning on the Boyne to US-31 trail, the initial Phase I bids of which were $241,000 over-budget.
County officials were so upset at their last meeting, they discussed sending a “nasty” letter to the State of Michigan, and Charlevoix Parks & Recreation Director Ross Maxwell said he would prepare a time-line of project setbacks to better explain the situation to the public at the 7 p.m. Wednesday Oct. 28 meeting.
“It’s not our fault, that’s the biggest problem with it,” said Charlevoix County Commissioner Chris Christensen (R-District 2) at the board’s Sept. 23 meeting. “I don’t care whose fault it is because I know it’s not ours.”
Christensen said, despite Charlevoix County officials working diligently, the non-motorized trail project continues to be delayed by the State of Michigan.
The most recent delay came from the county’s grant application having been rejected by the state because the bids received by the county were $241,000—that’s 24.5 percent—over original budget estimates.
“Ten percent is common,” Maxwell said late last week, adding that he has been working with state officials and the project’s engineers Northwest Design Group (NDG) to “whittle down” the overage.
“We were able to cut some figures from it but we’re still working on it,” said Maxwell on Thursday Oct. 22. “We’re going to change some things and rebid the project in just a few days.”
County officials initially thought the bid prices were due to the project taking longer than anticipated because of state delays.
“We’ve delayed it every time they’ve (State of Michigan) told us to delay it,” said Christensen.
One major delay to the project came in the 2013-14 grant cycle when the DNR’s parks division and the DNR’s real estate division argued over an easement vs. long-term lease situation.
Then, during the 2014-15 grant cycle, the project was delayed due to concerns over the long-eared bat.
“The people who aren’t at fault are going to be the ones that are going to be expected to pony up the cash for it—period,” said Christensen at last month’s meeting. “And, that’s not fair. And, that’s not right.”
A COMPLEX PROJECT
Maxwell said hiccups are a normal part of the process when working on a project of this size and complexity, and that no single entity is to blame. Though, he added, some of the cost increase could be due to project delays.
“It is a combination of factors,” Charlevoix County Planning Coordinator Kiersten Stark, who recently began working with Maxwell on the project, told the Gazette. “We were approximately $241,000 over original projected engineering estimates and a lot of that, I think, is due to more earthwork that will be needed than was anticipated… Also, there are going to be periodic lane closures when the contractors are building the trail. It was initially thought that only the shoulder would need to be used by the contractor to do the work.”
Stark said one of the main reasons the bids may have come back so far off from NDG’s original estimates is because the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) prohibits engineering firms from using local contractors as consultants on certain projects like the non-motorized trail.
“It would have made sense to call up some local contractors and have them go out to the site and take a look at it and give some inside information as to how much and what would be involved in the actual construction,” said Stark. “But, from MDOT’s perspective, allowing the engineer to contact a local contractor would give them an unfair advantage in the bidding process.”
On Friday Oct. 23, Northwest Design Group Officials Lucas Porath, the Regional Manager, and David Boyle, the Civil/Transportation Section Manager, gave their perspective on the matter.
“The project was designed the way it was planned,” said Boyle. “Before we went to bid, we went through the state system and the project was all within budget.”
He added, “So, when the bids came back, it was a surprise that it was over.”
Porath and Boyle said, no matter how carefully one plans, you never know what the bids will be until they are opened.
“We did follow-up with the bidders and, in talking with the contractors, we think one of the main issues was the timing. Everyone had their falls booked up. And, moving it to spring, we think, can make a significant difference,” Boyle said. “And, we tweaked some things to make some cost savings.”
Porath said the non-motorized trail path has been moved closer to the road in some places in order to reduce the amount of retaining wall needed. Apparently, the type of retaining wall they had planned to use is difficult to come by and, therefore, much more expensive.
NDG has also changed the plan to utilize a more uniform and less costly retaining wall.
“We’re expecting those tweaks and the adjustment in the timing to make a big difference,” said Boyle about the change in the beginning of construction from this fall to spring 2016… “They (contractors) indicated the timing would make a huge difference.”
Back at the meeting, Charlevoix County Board Chairman Joel Evans (R-District 4) said the issue is very frustrating but that he does not have the answer.
Christensen said he would like to put the matter on the record by sending the state a “nasty” letter. Charlevoix County Commissioner Nancy Ferguson agreed that a letter of displeasure should be sent to the state.
“At the end of the day, we need to advocate for the taxpayers,” said Christensen… “Despite the promises that were made, despite the commitments that were thrown out there, it’s coming back to the taxpayer.”
He added, “I think, if nothing more, we should advocate for that taxpayer in writing a nasty letter … to the state.”
Charlevoix County Board of Commissioners civil counsel Bryan Graham said the board should consider carefully whether its members want to chance sending disagreeable correspondence to the same state officials who will decide whether the county receives hundreds of thousands of dollars to build the trail.
“I am asked by the general public about what’s going on with the non-motorized trail,” said Charlevoix County Commissioner George T. Lasater (R-District 1). “I’m embarrassed to tell them we’ve been working on it for nine years and have yet to cut down a tree, we have yet to move any dirt and we are, this commission is, getting a lot of the blame for that,”
ETA ON NEW BIDS
Christensen asked who would be responsible to pay the overage if the project runs over-budget. Maxwell said that will come down to the county board and the taxpayer.
“We’ll have all the bids back in January—should be Jan. 8—for Phase I,” said Maxwell. “Hopefully we can cut that overage down. There were four (original) bids. They were all within $80,000, which is pretty tight.”
Stark told commissioners Phase I cannot move forward unless the cost comes down significantly.
“The problem is we first tried to shorten Phase I of the trail and that would have taken care of it in one fell swoop,” she said. “But, because federal funds had already been committed to the project, MDOT said no, you can’t reduce the length of Phase I. So, that’s when we started going through and whittling down the project and trying to find ways to reduce the cost.”
Stark added, “It’s my opinion that the project will be at a standstill until we can get the cost whittled down.”
Maxwell said Phase II bids should come back by February 2016.
Evans asked what the chance was that the price would go up on Phase II.
Maxwell said they won’t know until the bids are received.
Stark then discussed Phase III, which stretches from the end of Phase I through Horton Bay and down to Pincherry Road.
MORE FUNDING NEEDED?
“Most of the grants for Phase III have been submitted, and they were resubmittals because Ross had submitted grants for that last year but, due to some of the delays, we had to do them again,” said Stark.
Stark said a donation expected from the Fry Foundation has been canceled and is expected to be given when Phase II is completed. Also, the North Country Bicycle Club cannot give the additional $11,000 it was expected to donate.
Stark said the county will apply for additional funds from the Charlevoix County Community Foundation to cover those shortfalls.
For Phase III, Stark told commissioners that the DNR requires the county to ensure local matching funds by earmarking up to $52,000 from the county’s new parks and recreation fund to cover possible shortfalls in funding.
Commissioners were hesitant to OK the moneys due to the years of frustration they have already incurred due to delays.
“I’m pretty optimistic that, someday, this thing is going to go,” said Evans. “But, somebody has to pay for it.”
Maxwell said that maybe the county needs to go back to the townships and ask for more money to help fund the trail.
“I guess I’m getting to a point with this where, until you cut a tree and lay a trail, I don’t want to put any more effort into it,” Christensen said, adding that he cannot in good conscience go forward with the project based solely on hopes and wishes.
TRAIL MUST GO ON
Charlevoix County Commissioner Shirley Roloff (R-District 6) said the project must go forward.
“I’m not saying that we should throw this trail away,” said Christensen.
“This trail will get built. What I’m saying is … maybe we need to take a year off from all these grant applications and all this stuff and focus on getting Phase I and Phase II built so that we can then say, ‘Hey, look, this is what we’ve done with where we’ve gotten so far’ and then come back and approach it.”
Evans asked what would happen if the county refused to guarantee the $52,000 in local match moneys.
“The result would be that all of the Phase III grant applications and the trust fund grant that Ross worked hard on and the MDOT grant that he worked hard on putting in and submitted earlier this year would be dead in the water,” she said.
Charlevoix County Coordinator and Human Resources Director Kevin Shepard said his main concern was what the county would do if other local funding sources disappeared.
“If you’re going to consider the $52,000, I’d make the motion not to exceed this number,” Shepard said…
“It just makes me nervous that the county would obligate itself to pretty much guaranteeing these funds when they can pull out at any point in time and then you’re on the hook.”
Ferguson said it didn’t make any sense to stop the process after all of the grant application work has been completed.
Maxwell said that, even if the $52,000 fell through, the moneys would not be needed until 2017.
The motion to guarantee up to $52,000 in local matching funds was approved by a vote of 4-1. Christensen was the lone “no” vote.
Charlevoix County Commissioner Ron Reinhardt (R-District 3) was absent.