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Pennsy Trail link: Sticker shock

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GREENFIELD – The connection of the Pennsy Trail from Greenfield to Cumberland could be shelved as county officials try to figure out how to pay for it.

Hancock County Commissioner Brad Armstrong says he doesn’t believe there’s enough support among county officials now to put the idea up for a public vote for a bond issue. And what to do with the $30,000 study on how to connect the two trails is also in question, because the price for the project, an estimated $7.2 million, is a lot higher than advocates expected.

 “It’s a lot higher price tag, I think, than we’d hoped when we got started,” said Armstrong, who advocated for a study to be done with the ultimate goal of getting it on a public referendum.

Commissioners Tuesday heard from Dennis Cobb with First Group Engineering, the firm the Hancock County Tourism Commission hired to perform the study on the trail.

For several years, trail advocates have wondered how to connect the Greenfield and Cumberland stretches of the hiking and biking trail along the old Pennsylvania Railroad bed just south of U.S. 40. The railroad bed has already been turned into a trail in two stretches: six miles in Greenfield and about three in Cumberland. The 4.5-mile stretch between CRs 150W and 600W is currently unpaved and in the hands of private landowners.

Cobb said there are two funding options: to use $7.2 million in local property taxes to pay for the project within four years, or to apply for federal grants. Grants would take less local money — $5.6 million – but could take much longer to complete. It would take about 15 years, Cobb said.

Commissioners took in the information Tuesday but didn’t make a decision as a group of trail advocates and property owners looked on. There was no opportunity for public discussion, though a lively meeting in January laid out the plans to concerned property owners.

Armstrong said that January public meeting was a turning point for him when it came to how the public perceived the project. Not only is the connection pricey, he said, but property owners are leery about selling their land to the county. That could lead to snags in completing the project.

Armstrong said while the study was helpful, the project could be more feasible if it was only $2 or $3 million. The plan could just be shelved for the time being, he added.

Commissioners Derek Towle and Tom Stevens said afterward they’re not ready to decide what to do.

Stevens said he’s reluctant for any project to move forward and be in competition with funds for road improvements and maintenance.

“We’ve got a lot of monster projects in the county, a lot of concerns, a lot of needs where that will weigh in,” he said.

Both said while they’d like to see a connected trail system for the community’s quality of life, it could be hard paying for it.

“In this economic time, it’s going to be a huge stumbling block we’re going to have to overcome if we want to get it off the ground,” Towle said, adding that it’s hard to tell whether he’d want the county to take out a bond for the project. “I think it’s too early to look at or take away any option that we have,” he said.

Members of the Sugar Creek Pennsy Trail Committee said the study was helpful for them, and they’re still hopeful a referendum could allow for all residents to vote on the trail.

“Will there be a referendum in the fall? I don’t know, but if you’re going the federal route, you’re talking 15 years out,” C.O. Montgomery said.

Mary Ann Wietbrock said the project seems to be gaining momentum among others in the community who want to see a connection. She said she’d like to hear more from Armstrong about how to move forward after Tuesday’s presentation and noted that using grant funds requires a local match close to how much it would take for the community to fund it entirely out of tax dollars.

“It’s really only 2 million more dollars (to pay for it through a bond and referendum than through matching grant funds),” Wietbrock said. “Two million versus 15 years – to me that’s huge.”

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