In our view: A Trail Meant for Royalty

Extravagant project near Battle Ground was full of costly surprises

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What was perceived to be a potential jewel of Clark County has turned into the Hope Diamond for hikers, and taxpayers are justifiably outraged at having to pay for the bling. It’s called the “million-dollar mile,” that portion of the intermittent Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Trail that opened last month near Battle Ground State Park.Because state and federal grants are drying up and strained local sources are going to other priorities, no new portions of the 33-mile trail are planned in the near future, which is just as well. At $1.03 million per mile, shutting down construction is the best strategy.

As this project was originally presented in our trail-friendly community, supporters (including The Columbian) envisioned a 33-mile trail linking Burnt Bridge Creek near northwest Vancouver to Moulton Falls Regional Park in northeast Clark County. Along the way, Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway, Padden Parkway Trail and Battle Ground Lake State Park would be featured. But the way county officials blew through the first million bucks, the best-laid plans are understandably suspended.

At one point, we were strongly in favor of this project, but as times change, we — and the public and the spending of tax dollars — need to change as well. To that extent, we now question the “business as usual” approach to spending this money.

Specifically, the million-dollar mile (funded mostly through federal transportation and state recreation grants but also with local real estate and other taxes) has included $228,304 for a master plan, $210,987 for design/engineering/permitting, $39,650 for right-of-way, $480,000 for construction and $71,192 for management/inspection.

County Commissioner Tom Mielke opposed the plan in 2009 and said last week that he wished the money could be used to extend existing trails. That recommendation gains clout with the million-dollar mile details Stephanie Rice reported in a Monday story. Remember, too, the county already has 66 miles of regional trails, with a goal of 240 miles of regional trails and bikeways. Further sustaining Mielke’s opposition are three costly surprises, which we wonder if they really had to be so surprising:

• The only access to this 5,257-foot trail (23 feet short of a mile) is at Battle Ground State Park, and the only legal way to park there is with a $10 daily pass or $30 annual pass. The other end of the trail dead-ends on land owned by the state Department of Natural Resources, with no parking nearby.

• County officials believed that, since the county owns the railroad, work could be done beside the railroad with little difficulty. But federal safety guidelines required a training course for 50 people, and a safety supervisor had to oversee the work.

• Steep slopes requiring additional grading and walls drove up the environmental costs.

The bureaucrats have a satchel full of reasons for the high expense: costly permitting, excessive regulations. They also assume the defensive crouch of lessons learned, won’t happen again. But none of the reasons will cut the cost of the million-dollar mile. Whether the project is a good one is not as crucial as whether the first mile’s money was well-spent.

This is how projects like this get out of hand. And in the future, “nice” stuff like pathways should not be undertaken until our economy turns around.