Grant terms could kill Rt. 82 bike path

E. Marlborough officials concerned about details, potential costs in deal with PennDOT

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
EAST MARLBOROUGH — Complicated language that apparently obscures financial responsibility in the grant application for the proposed Route 82 bike path could end local support for the project, unless the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) agrees to modify the agreement to ensure the township will face no further costs on the $2 million project.

Discussion of the ongoing project was spurred Monday night after Supervisor Robert Weer shared newspaper clippings of a recent story in a local daily newspaper discussing the project. The story  was allegedly caused by the reporter at the publication mistakenly reading Nov. 2011 meeting minutes with Weer noting his opposition, and seemingly thinking they were from last month.

Township Manager Jane Laslo said she fielded questions from other media outlets and residents and was forced to explain the error of the publication, which is also the township’s legal newspaper.

The Board of Supervisors previously approved the project by a 3-2 vote in 2011, as there was clear division on the board about the cost-to-benefit ratio for the community. Further concerns about the project were aired in August, when the Board of Supervisors decided to delay moving forward with some aspects of the project over initial concerns about contract language, concerns that, if anything, appear to be more serious now.

Once that confusion over the errant newspaper report was cleared up, Weer continued to question the grant agreement, again noting his concern — as he did in August — that the way the agreement was written would seem to leave the township on the hook for some costs and cost overruns. While the township paid in excess of $200,000 for the design, the construction of the one-mile segment was supposed to be funded by state and federal funds. But certain clauses in the grant agreement would seem to suggest that additional costs could fall back on the township — and be deducted from the Liquid Fuels funding the township receives annually.

And even Laslo, a strong advocate for the project, acknowledged that had township officials known all the details of the process up front, including the final details of the grant agreement, they might not have decided to move forward.

“It’s been kind of spoon-fed to us,” she said.

When questioned about some of the details, Laslo said that PennDOT officials responded by saying that it is the standard agreement that every municipality signs for such projects.

Supervisors chair Cuyler Walker — who has also supported the project — made it clear that without changes to the agreement that ensure the township is protected from further cost, he will not support continuing.

“It (the grant agreement) is unacceptable to me,” he said, “unless PennDOT is willing to accept numerous modifications. I can’t believe that other municipalities accept this.”

While Weer acknowledged and pointed out these issues, he still questioned whether this project — spending some $2 million for a one-mile bike path long Route 82 — made sense in light of the current financial situation.

Laslo acknowledged that because of the combined state and federal rules for the project it will likely end up being far more expensive than it might have been had it been solely a township project.

“Whenever federal dollars are involved,” she said, “the dollars (in costs) go up.”

Other details that add to the expense, Laslo said, included the requirement to hire a right-of-way consultant. While residents can offer to donate their property easements, they still have to be offered cash compensation. By comparison, the recent sewer project involved all but one of the easements being donated to the township at no cost, she said.

Weer again questioned the sense of spending so much tax money on a project of this nature, especially in light of the current economy and the ongoing talks about the so-called “Fiscal Cliff.”

“I think we should withdraw the application,” Weer said. “This is why our federal government has the problems it has, because of contracts like this.”

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