BRYAN CLARK Spirit Staff
CHARLES TOWN – In a unanimous vote, the Jefferson County Commission today agreed to provide the majority of matching dollars for a federal grant to fund construction of a bike path along W.Va. 480, just outside of Shepherdstown. The letter of commitment which the county will issue is a prerequisite for obtaining the grant, but it is still not assured that the U.S. Department of Transportation will fund the project.
“This is something for all of us, and it’s an important project,” argued Mayor Jim Auxer. “This … allows the county and the town to get together to show the people that live here that we can communicate and we can work something out for the common good. That’s what this project is: something for the common good.”
Auxer noted that Morgan’s Grove park is the most-utilized park in the county.
Town Recorder Lori Robertson told the commission that the half-mile section of path, which will run along with west side of W.Va. 480, would connect existing paths to greatly increase bike and pedestrian access to Morgan’s Grove park.
“This path will connect several county subdivisions, two schools, businesses and services [within] Shepherdstown to Morgan’s Grove safely,” Robertson said.
Robertson said preliminary estimates for the cost of the bike trail put the price at around $539,000, but a federal grant program could cover most of those costs if local governments can put up 20 percent – $108,000 – in required matching funds. Auxer and Town Council Member Dave Springer said that Shepherdstown will contribute 30 percent of those matching funds, but hope the county will contribute the remaining $75,500. The town will also administer the grant, provide a project manager and issue requests for proposals.
Springer said the project has widespread local support. He pointed out that it took less that 15 days for a Facebook page supporting the plan to gather 547 members and 26 written letters of support, including letters from Shepherd University officials, regional planning officials, business owners and elected representatives.
A similar proposal was put forward in 2009. The commission agreed to provide matching funds that year, but the U.S. Department of Transportation did not ultimately approve the grant proposal, effectively shelving the project.
Auxer pointed out that approval of the grant was not a sure thing, noting that there were 150 applicants currently vying for “a very small pot of money.”
However, Matt Mullenax, transportation planner and GIS analyst with the Hagerstown-Eastern Panhandle Metropolitan Planning Organization, argues it is more likely that the grant will be approved this year because W.Va. Division of Highways officials have been familiarized with the project.
“I walked with the director of program planning at [the Division of Highways] from the Clarion, down to Morgan’s Grove where this proposed path would go,” Mullenax said.“I think that since with the recent DOT visits for a number of projects in Jefferson County, this has higher visibility than it did in 2009.”
Commissioners expressed universal support for the project, though a small controversy did arise over the proposed source of the matching funds.
“For us, as a county, to chip in $75,000 and get half a million dollars, is a good deal,” said Commissioner Lyn Widmyer.
Commissioner Walt Pellish told the Shepherdstown officials, “You absolutely have my 100 percent support for this project.”
However, he said, the request comes at a time when the county expects revenue to decline.
“We are not going to be in the best financial straits coming into this year. We are going to have to be very careful with how we spend dollars,” he said.
He said he had “found a way to get the money quickly,” namely, by diverting $91,000 – the leftovers from a dedicated fund the commission created to fund the purchase of the Shepherdstown Cement Mill property, which the commission later decided against paying out – from a project to build a war memorial and pavilion at Sam Michaels Park.
He challenged Widmyer to “be a hero” and offer a motion to divert that money.
Commission President Dale Manuel made it clear that he was not in favor of diverting funds from the pavilion project, which he thinks will be important for parents supervising their children.
“You may be a hero to one, but you may be a villain to another,” he commented, moving to earmark $25,000 from the county’s contributions fund and then examine other options for the remainder of the funding.
Pellish moved to amend the motion, arguing that the commission should issue a letter committing them to providing the funding. He said the commission would have time to determine where the money would come from at its budget session next week.
The commission unanimously approved both the amendment and the motion. Shepherdstown officials will now have until Mar. 15 to file their grant application. Robertson said she is unsure when the town will hear whether the application has been approved, but said it could be some time.