Trail project hits bumps in road

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A segment of the Pennsy Trail between CR 500W and CR 600W in Hancock County was expected to be finished by last November but remains incomplete.

Mitchell Kirk | Daily Reporter

HANCOCK COUNTY – A new stretch of an extensive trail was anticipated to be done by now, but has been delayed amid disagreements between those involved in the project.

A contractor blames what he calls substandard plans and poor communication, while a trail organization disagrees and the county points to a late start. Officials have terminated the agreement with the company hired to create much of the trail segment and plan to enlist a few other firms to finish the work.

The county accepted a bid for over $226,000 almost a year ago from Nashville, Indiana-based Monroe LLC to extend the Pennsy Trail between CR 500W and CR 600W south of U.S. 40. A grant from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources is funding the extension.

The Pennsy Trail is part of the National Road Heritage Trail, which aims to be Indiana’s first cross-state multi-use trail with 150 miles from Terre Haute to Richmond using the former Pennsylvania and Vandalia rail corridors, where possible, and closely following the Historic National Road U.S. 40. Several segments in central Indiana are called the Pennsy after the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.

The latest Hancock County stretch of the trail was supposed to be done by last November, but John Simpson of Monroe LLC said at a Hancock County Commissioners meeting this week that the project has been mired by what he feels are a lack of communication and other problems.

“At the end of the day obviously we’re plagued by communication issues, issues of who’s involved, who are we working with, who’s solving our problems, who’s not,” Simpson said. “Why do we have problems to begin with? This ought to be really simple. Why is it not? I don’t know who we’re supposed to get answers from.”

Simpson feels plans for the project, prepared by WSP, are deficient and that the engineering firm did not spend enough time onsite to develop adequate plans. Trees needed to be cleared that weren’t addressed in the plans, he continued, adding he feels the plans could have been developed in a way that would not have required the removal of so many trees.

“We’d like to try to work it out, but if we can’t get good plans and good engineering to go with that, we can’t do our job,” Simpson said. “I’ve built these trails all over central Indiana. I think we know what we’re doing. I’m certain that we know what we’re doing, but we have to deal with a lot of different people and a lot of different agencies.”

Monroe LLC installed two culverts as a part of the project, neither of which were designed correctly and required correction in the field, Simpson said. The project also suffers from a lack of fill material, he said.

Mary Ann Wietbrock, board president of Pennsy Trails of Hancock County Inc., said she has maintained frequent communication with Simpson and that representatives from WSP have been onsite frequently as well, adding Simpson goes weeks without being onsite.

“The plans are valid, the plans are good, we stand by the plans,” she said, adding she feels it’s an interpretation issue.

Hancock County Commissioners President Bill Spalding noted Monroe LLC didn’t get to work on the project until later than expected, which Simpson acknowledged. Spalding added there was plenty of dry time throughout the summer and that work didn’t start until closer to November, when the project was slated to have finished, and when it’s often wetter and more difficult to work with soil.

Scott Benkie, Hancock County attorney, said he feels Monroe LLC breached its agreement with the county. He expressed concerns over the timing of Simpson’s claims that the engineering plans were faulty, given that the contractor raised them after such a late start.

Gary Pool, Hancock County engineer, however, said Monroe LLC is used to conducting larger projects and working with agencies like the Indiana Department of Transportation.

“We probably could’ve held his hand a little bit more from our side,” Pool said.

Noting the seemingly irreconcilable differences, the county commissioners voted unanimously to terminate the agreement with Monroe LLC.

Wietbrock said she has proposals from three other contractors to complete the remaining work, and the Hancock County Highway Department will continue to work on the trail segment as well.

Benkie said he will commence the process to ensure Monroe LLC gets paid for the work it has done.

“I’m not trying to assign any blame here whatsoever,” Pool said. “The project’s struggling. … We need to pay for work done as a county.”