ALPENA - Thunder Bay Trails Association members and others heard about an idea to improve the Department of Natural Resources' Alpena to Hillman trail Wednesday.
Emily Meyerson, a trails consultant with Top of Michigan Trails Council, talked about the plan and answered questions. The council, along with the DNR, originally had hoped to apply to the Natural Resources Trust Fund to pay for part of the project by Tuesday, but a few issues forced them to hold off for a year.
"If you have ideas, now is the time to figure them out," she said. "We have time, and nothing is off the table."
Once finished, the trail would look much like the North East State Trail, Meyerson said. It would have a 10-foot-wide crushed limestone surface with two-foot shoulders. The trail would be universally accessible and have new safety signage.
Based on prices for improving NEST, Meyerson estimated the project cost at $1,856,000, much of which would be the cost of the crushed limestone surface. The Michigan Department of Transportation has agreed to help by handling engineering and putting up 20 percent of the funds. Sixty percent would be from the state's Transportation Alternatives Program, 16 percent from a Natural Resources Trust Fund grant and 4 percent would be local match. That 4 percent could be covered if a local limestone producer donates the needed material.
This 22-mile trail has been long in the making, Meyerson said. The DNR has been working on it since the 1980s, and bought most of the railroad grade between Herron Road and Hillman in 1998. In 2009, the department bought the grade from Alpena to King Settlement Road, and bought the half-mile between Herron and King Settlement roads in 2003.
The final price tag depends on a few issues, Meyerson said. One is a roughly two-mile gap between M-65 and Salina Road. The current snowmobile trail jogs south to Green Road, but an improved trail couldn't use the same route without major improvements. For one, Green Road is a gravel road that wouldn't meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. For another, it's a narrow road that in many places has swamp on either side.
"There's no easy answer there," she said. "We can't just route a nonmotorized trail along a gravel road."
The gap is the result of a lawsuit between the railroad that formerly owned the grade and one or more adjacent landowners, Meyerson said. The DNR previously had worked out a purchase agreement with the railroad, but the property owners won the lawsuit and the property.
A possible solution would be to route the trail along M-65, then M-32 over to Salina Road, Meyerson said. It's also possible the property owners might be agreeable to selling easements.
Another issue involves the bridges, Meyerson said. There are five stream crossings, and trail requirements say the bridges have to be 14 feet wide. The existing bridges are 11 or 12 feet wide, and some may need work.
Regardless, Meyerson said she thinks the trail is a great opportunity, and one with lots of local tie-ins. It's already connected to the Alpena bi-path, and Hillman wants to connect its own local trail system to it as well. It runs near Thunder Bay Resort's elk viewing area, the Optimist Acres park in Wilson Township and the former Paxton Quarry.
"I see this as a great trail, frankly," she said. "Honestly, grants are competitive, but I can see no reason why we shouldn't get one for this."
Another possible connection could be Norway Ridge Pathway, and several audience members asked about this, including TBTA President Hal Butler. He and others talked about possible routes to connect the two trails.
Butler said he thinks the connection could bring more bikers to Norway Ridge, although the details still need to be worked out.
"It's in the infancy stage as far as development, so I'm sure there'll be a lot of back and forth," he said.