2017-11-02 / Front Page

Public Weighs In On Bridge Walk

By Stephanie Fortino

The Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) continues to accept comments on proposed changes to the Labor Day Bridge Walk. The authority will host a public meeting in Lansing Monday, November 20, at 9 a.m., at which MBA Executive Secretary Bob Sweeney expects a decision to be made. Plans for the amended bridge walk will be set soon so tourist organizations in St. Ignace and Mackinaw City have time to adjust other events that will be affected if the walk is moved to a different date.

The MBA held a public hearing in Mackinaw City Wednesday evening, October 25, but it was sparsely attended. Only 15 people appeared at the Mackinaw City recreation complex, five of them spoke, and their comments lasted about 15 minutes, despite the space being reserved for two hours. Another three people spoke at the MBA meeting the following morning.

“The turnout is about what I expected,” Mr. Sweeney said. “I had a couple of meetings with St. Ignace and Mackinaw City chambers of commerce, so it’s not a big surprise we had low turnout at the meeting.”

The St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce announced one meeting to its membership, but did not encourage general public attendance.

The MBA does not plan to host a meeting in St. Ignace. The authority had wanted to hold one of its meetings last week in St. Ignace, he said, but Little Bear East Arena was already booked.

Comments on the Labor Day Bridge Walk can be submitted through the MBA’s Web site under the Contact Us page.

For the first time this year, the Mackinac Bridge was closed to all public vehicle traffic for safety concerns, but the closure created some negative unintended consequences. Many walkers were left in Mackinaw City and couldn’t participate, mainly because the bus loading in Mackinaw City was slow and bus traffic across the bridge was congested at times. The change also had economic impacts in the Upper Peninsula, as hotels throughout the U.P. reported that people cut short or cancelled their vacations to avoid being caught by the closure, Mr. Sweeney said.

Several options for improving the Bridge Walk were discussed November 20, including three rerouting options: The walk could start from both directions, but walkers would only walk halfway across before turning back; the walk could be changed from going from south to north, but it would likely take longer to get southbound people back across the bridge to their cars in Mackinaw City; the walk could remain going from north to south, with more buses added.

The date of the Labor Day event may also be changed to another day, the weekend after that, or a weekend in the spring. Moving the event from Labor Day weekend might decrease participation, said Mr. Sweeney.

Everyone who spoke urged the MBA to continue the Bridge Walk on Labor Day weekend, since local businesses rely on the economic boost Labor Day travel brings to the area.

In general, those who spoke also said the event could be improved if the bus loading area in Mackinaw City is changed. If the loading area is moved from the State Dock to the Mackinaw City High School, 12 buses could be loaded at a time, four more than at the dock.

Doug Fouty of Mackinaw City has both walked and volunteered for the event, and he and his family have hosted many relatives and friends for the event.

“You’ve outgrown the park for a starting point,” he said of the Mackinaw City staging area.

He suggested buses could be lined along the street, too, so more people can be loaded onto buses, which would keep them downtown in Mackinaw City. As people wait in line to walk, he told The St. Ignace News, they often patronize local businesses, buying cups of coffee or food.

Luke Paquin of St. Ignace, the only U.P. resident to attend the meetings, urged the MBA to keep the walk as a Labor Day weekend event. He also urged the MBA to carefully consider how it reroutes walkers. If the walk began in Mackinaw City rather than St. Ignace, he feared people would be less inclined to come to St. Ignace, which would hurt business throughout the Upper Peninsula.

“Both communities need this just as much as the other,” he said.

Mr. Paquin, a St. Ignace hotelier, is a member of the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau board and the city council.

If the walk must be moved to a different day that weekend, he suggested Sunday would be the day to consider.

If the event were to be moved to Sunday that weekend, it would conflict with the DALMAC Bike Tour, during which participants travel from Lansing to Mackinaw City. Each year, some of the participants travel across the Mackinac Bridge, but fewer have crossed in about the past five years when the event was moved from an afternoon crossing to a morning crossing, Mr. Sweeney said. Last year, about 1,500 riders participated in the event, and 475 had signed up to cross the bridge, but fewer than 400 finished it this year.

Longtime bridge walk participant Jim Lindholm of Grand Rapids, who has walked the bridge 52 times, said the walk could be held on the Sunday before Labor Day, but during the afternoon to keep visitors in town. The MBA has suggested keeping the walk during the morning when traffic volumes are less so fewer travelers would be affected.

Mackinaw City Village President Robert Heilman said the MBA needs to consider the traffic patterns in downtown Mackinaw City more carefully to avoid backups where the ramps are closed.

He also advocated against the MBA’s option to have walkers start in both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, then turn around at the midpoint of the bridge.

“How long before people decide it’s not a bridge walk?” he asked.

Another change this year was that Michigan State Troopers were posted along the bridge instead of members of the National Guard. Mr. Heilman said the National Guard members should come back and provide security assistance during the event.

The MBA did not ask the National Guard back this year, Mr. Sweeney told The St. Ignace News, because the board opted to have armed Michigan State Troopers on hand, instead.

Mackinaw City businessman Joseph Lieghio, whose family owns 28 hotels and 10 restaurants in the area, spoke at the MBA meeting Thursday morning. Labor Day weekend is huge for his businesses, he said, noting the Sunday before Labor Day is one of the busiest days of the year.

“Even moving it to Sunday would be a major blow,” he said.

Unlike others who spoke at the meeting the night before, Mr. Lieghio liked the idea of having walkers start in both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. He also suggested walkers from Mackinaw City could walk north in one lane while walkers from St. Ignace could walk south in the other. He also suggested that ferries could be used to transport people across the Straits of Mackinac, too, rather than having to rely solely on buses.

Mr. Liehgio also discouraged having lines move too quickly, because as people wait, they shop and see what Mackinaw City has to offer.

“The waiting period is not a bad thing,” he said. “It’s all part of the experience.”

Some comments about how much the MBA charges for riding the bus were also made. For about the last 10 years, the MBA has charged $5 per person to ride the shuttle. Longtime volunteer Mr. Fouty told The St. Ignace News that the MBA should consider having a credit card option available as fewer and fewer people carry cash. Mr. Lieghio said the MBA should consider doubling the price to $10 to ride a bus. In his experience, 90% of those who walked the bridge have done so before and would gladly pay more money to ride a bus.

In response to the proposed new bus loading location at the high school, Mr. Lieghio also offered several locations owned by his family in downtown Mackinaw City to load the buses, including the area behind Mackinaw Crossings.

Each member of the MBA received a full copy of the comments that were submitted electronically.

“They seem to be all over the place,” Mr. Sweeney told The St. Ignace News. “Some people want the bridge walk cancelled altogether, some want it to remain on the traditional day, some want it moved to Saturday or Sunday. Some people like option one, where people come from both ways. Some people like option two, from Mackinaw City to St. Ignace, and some like option three,” walking north to south but adding more busses.

The comments are spread equally among all the variations proposed, he said, which will make the final decision more difficult. The commenters also strongly oppose the option they didn’t select.

“It’s clear we’re not going to please everybody with the decision the bridge authority comes up with,” he said.

As of the morning of October 26, the bridge authority had received 148 general comments about the walk. Another 180 responses were made opposing moving the walk to the day before Labor Day because of the DALMAC Bike Ride.

Traffic across the Mackinac Bridge was obviously impacted by the bridge closure, and traffic was down by about 9,500 vehicles when comparing this Labor Day to Labor Day 2016. About 5,000 of those would have been walkers who traveled to St. Ignace to start the race, Mr. Sweeney estimated. While there was no bump in traffic Sunday like the MBA had expected, there was a bump in traffic the Tuesday after Labor Day, which suggests some people waited an extra day to cross. Bridge traffic overall was minimally impacted in September, with only 524 fewer vehicles than September of 2016. Traffic during the rest of the month was up.

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