Trails Council Bike Trail Running Path Michigan

Little Traverse Wheelway – Westside Connector Update

As we noted in our last update, it has now been just over two years since a slope failure collapsed a portion of the Little Traverse Wheelway along the “Miracle Mile” trail segment. Since then we’ve been hard at work looking for solutions, and we finally have news to share about one of them.

Safety Concerns
When the washout happened, we knew that rebuilding the trail would be a multi-year project because of the realities of government funding cycles and construction season up north – plus Great Lakes water levels were at all time highs and needed to go down first. The Trails Council, City of Petoskey, and others were clear that the trail was closed between Magnus Park and East Park and that trail users should avoid the area. Of course that didn’t stop many, many people from using the shoulder of US 31 to ride around the washout, causing an immediate safety concern.

The City of Petoskey took the lead in pushing for ways to make the road shoulder safer, but MDOT was unable or unwilling to do much. At that point, the City, Emmet County, Resort Township, and the Trails Council started considering building a separated trail along US 31 that could potentially be a fast, cheap solution to the safety issue and reconnect the broken trail.

That concept was eventually dubbed the “Westside Connector” by our Executive Director and would have created new connectivity between the Emmet County Fairgrounds and East Park along a corridor of Resort Township hotels and businesses. This new trail could have been a boon for residents and businesses, creating permanent safe pedestrian access to the city and serving as an alternate route for the Little Traverse Wheelway until the real trail could be rebuilt.

After much discussion, the Trails Council, City of Petoskey, Emmet County, Resort Township, and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians split the cost of an engineering study and cost estimate to determine the feasibility of the Westside Connector trail concept. After more than a year, the study is finally ready (see link below). The engineering firm presented the report’s conclusions to Petoskey City Council on June 6, to be followed by presentations to Resort Township on June 14 and Emmet County on June 16.

Little Traverse Wheelway – Westside Connector Design and Cost Study

Neither Fast Nor Cheap
The Westside Connector ended up having a number of design and engineering complications including steep slopes, moving existing utilities and business signage, and a need to easements to name but a few. Those complications coupled with an underpass tunnel on US 31 (required by Emmet County for their participation) lead to a project cost of $6.5M before easement/acquisition costs. Project partners were hoping to find a fast, cheap solution and the Westside Connector turned out to be neither fast nor cheap.

The $6.5M+ price tag for the Westside Connector is right in line with estimates of costs to repair the failed slope and reinstall the trail in its original location. (In fact, some estimates of repairing the real trail are less than $6.5M.) Looking at the Westside Connector was not time or money wasted; checking out our options was the right thing to do but now that we have we know that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

The time has come to change our focus back to fixing the Miracle Mile.

Fixing the Trail is Possible
In 2020 Baird Engineering produced a report outlining the causes of the slope failure and listing some possible engineering strategies to restabilize the slope. Unfortunately this list of engineering ideas contributed to an inaccurate impression that fixing the slope would be difficult and extremely costly.

The Baird study was designed to answer the question: what caused the slope failure? and did that very well. The Baird study was not however designed to answer the question: how do we rebuild the trail? That question should be asked and answered as we turn to next steps. We should also consider the aesthetic and recreational value of the Miracle Mile and its iconic views of Little Traverse Bay.

The Trails Council believes that the slope can be stabilized, and the trail rebuilt, in a simpler fashion that will be more resilient to lakeshore erosion and climate change. Instead of restoring the old railroad grade, we can build a lower trail that follows the topography while also addressing drainage from groundwater at the top of the slope. These simplifying concepts will eliminate points of potential failure and be cheaper to build. 

The Trails Council has been working with a local firm that has walked the site and put pen to paper on engineering concepts, coming up with a rough estimate in the $6-8M range – very much the same ballpark as the more detailed Westside Connector plans. Our next step should be to further develop plans for restoring the original trail so we can make an informed decision.

If we could get the Miracle Mile back for the same price (or cheaper) as a trail along a highway, isn’t that what the community would want?

An Investment That Pays For Itself
Data from our 2021 Trail User Survey is now available and the impact of the Little Traverse Wheelway is staggering:

  • 116,000 annual users (doubled from 2014)
  • $1.4M direct economic impact* (more than doubled since 2014)
  • One quarter of users paid for lodging; estimated $4.2M** indirect economic impact
  • 30% of users stayed at their second home or with friends/family, generating tax revenue and local spending on goods, services, retail, and restaurants
  • Retail shopping and restaurant spending are more difficult to estimate but likely exceed lodging spending, adding another $4.5M.***

In other words, the estimated cost to rebuild the trail is equal to or less than a single year’s economic impact on the Petoskey and Emmet County economies.

This economic impact is not an abstraction: money spent at local businesses stays local in the form of “wages and benefits paid to local residents, profits earned by local owners, the purchases of local goods and services for resale and internal use, and contributions to local nonprofits.”**** All of these things strengthen the Petoskey and Emmet County economies and support a thriving local population.

*This accounts for spending while actually on the trail, and not lodging, meals, shopping, and other activities while in the area.
**Estimated based on one night’s stay at either hotel ($200/night avg. daily rate) or campground ($38/night at Petoskey State Park; private would be more).
***Per Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau, retail and restaurant are top activities of visitors. MEDC data for Emmet County suggests retail plus food & beverage spending taken together slightly exceed spending on lodging.
****Why Buy Local? An Assessment of the Economic Advantages of Shopping at Locally Owned Businesses, Michigan State University – Center for Community and Economic Development

Next Steps
If you support rebuilding the Miracle Mile please contact your elected officials in Petoskey, Resort Township, and Emmet County. More will become clear as the latter two receive their presentations in the coming days, but we need to make sure the Westside Connector study is not the end of the line but is instead a crucial step in an ongoing effort to restore the Little Traverse Wheelway.