ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County commissioners on Thursday, Nov. 8, got a look at the final proposal for a park and biking/hiking trail along Red Arrow Highway from Bridgman to New Buffalo.
Commissioner Ezra Scott of New Buffalo was skeptical about part of the plan that would change the highway from four lanes to three, including a turning lane.
Scott said last summer he saw traffic backed up on Red Arrow Highway, starting at U.S. 12, at least six times, with vehicles bumper to bumper for three and a half miles. He expressed concern that reducing traffic to three lanes would make congestion even worse, especially when there are backups along I-94. He suggested shutting down a lane on Red Arrow Highway to see what happens.
Scott said he had received emails from residents about the plan that has been discussed at public forums, “some nice and some quite vile.”
Road Department Director Jason Latham said the highway design phase hasn’t been conducted yet, and he assured commissioners that when it is undertaken engineers will not create a traffic pattern that is more congested. The goal, Latham said, is how to spend the least amount of money and make it as safe as possible. He explained that no road repair funds will be diverted to this project.
Latham said the average vehicle traffic on Red Arrow Highway is well within the range to allow for three lanes. He said that four-lane roads have more accidents because they don’t provide a space for vehicles making left turns, causing other drivers to swerve around them.
Latham, a former supervisor with the Michigan Department of Transportation, recalled that Main Street in Benton Harbor was reduced from five to three lanes, and one at the roundabouts, “and it wasn’t a disaster.”
The road department director expects to school commissioners on how MDOT officials conduct “road diet” studies on traffic volume. He said these engineers are “very, very conservative” and “hate congestion.”
Bob Ford, with Landscape Architects, worked with county, Lake, Chikaming and New Buffalo township officials and the city of Bridgman to draft the proposal. He said the cost for the project with a four-lane Red Arrow Highway would be $41 million, while a three-lane configuration is estimated at $20 million.
A three-lane roadway allows for a wider buffer zone between pedestrians and vehicles, and makes it easier to handle utility poles, culverts and other obstacles along the way, Ford said.
This is a long-term plan, and the county will take it on “in bite-size pieces,” Ford said. “You will pay for as much as it as you can afford.”
The cost of the Lake Township section is $3.3 million with a four-lane road. For Chikaming, the cost would be $22 million for four lanes and $12.6 million for three. In New Buffalo Township, cost estimates are $15.4 and $7.6 million.
Work is nearly completed on the section from Interstate 94 Exit 12 to Browntown Road just past Warren Dunes State Park.
Commissioners are being asked to adopt the proposal as part of the Parks Department’s master plan for 2020-2025. Having it as part of the master plan makes Berrien County eligible for federal and state grants.
Having the trail makes it safer for people walking or biking along Red Arrow Highway, Ford said, and it connects communities and creates opportunities to attract new families and jobs.
Other places across the country are developing trail systems, and Berrien County needs to stay current, Ford added.
Peddling the plan
The Parks Department plan for the “linear park” call for 10foot wide paths. The trails would be separated from the roadway by a 10-foot buffer zone, plus two-foot buffers on either side.
Trailheads along the way would provide places for people to stop and rest, with benches, restrooms and other amenities. Likely places would include near the Chikaming and New Buffalo township halls, and at Floral Lane on the west side of Red Arrow Highway, Ford said.
Highway islands would make it safer for people to cross the roadway, he pointed out. He said that the Department of Natural Resources is on board with connecting trails through Warren Dunes State Park.
Sketches of Union Pier, rendered by resident and urban designer John Chipman, show such streetside improvements such as sidewalk pavers, outdoor dining, benches and trash receptacles, and street lamps hung with decorative banners.
In one comment from the public meetings, a resident suggested changing the name to Red Arrow Parkway, Ford said. He noted that the road got its name from the famous U.S. Army Red Arrow Division, which included Michigan residents.
Commissioner Bill Chickering asked whether designers had looked at following interior roads rather than Red Arrow Highway.
Ford said they did look at that, but kept running into obstacles, from ditches to private property. “We didn’t want to, but we keep coming back to Red Arrow Highway.”
Parks Director Brian Bailey said the county would be responsible for maintenance along the trail, and he anticipated a cost-sharing arrangement with the neighboring townships.
Commissioner Teri Freehling asked whether patrolling along the park would add costs to the Sheriff’s Department.