2017-11-23 / Front Page

Businesses Asked To Share in Costs Of Bridge Walk

Event Will Remain on Labor Day
By Gary Heinlein

The annual Mackinac Bridge walk, a late-summer staple of Michigan life since 1957, again will be held on Labor Day in 2018, the Mackinac Bridge Authority decided at a meeting in Lansing, but with a significant new wrinkle: Straits-area tourism bureaus, businesses, and chambers of commerce will be asked to share the cost.

This proposal, one of three approved unanimously at a Monday, November 20, special board meeting of the Bridge Authority, came from State Transportation Director Kirk Steudle, who said significantly increased costs to stage the walk, this year and in the future, shouldn’t be entirely borne by the Mackinac Bridge and the motorists who pay tolls to drive across it.

“We tried to get some sponsorships this year, we had some sponsorships, thanks to you board members and some others, but the issue is the cost to the rate-payer, the toll-payer, who goes across the bridge in February or June – that they’re ultimately subsidizing what could be considered a very strong local tourism event,” Mr. Steudle said.

His motion was to “ask the local communities to come back with a plan

— the local business community, chambers of commerce, St. Ignace and Mackinaw City – of how they would run this, and we would basically make the bridge available to them.” The board voted to hold that discussion at its February meeting, which now will be held in St. Ignace.

Mr. Steudle said Straits-area businesses shouldn’t be asked to shoulder all the costs, but his proposal is intended to give them an option for continuing the Bridge Walk essentially as-is, before the Bridge Authority considers an alternative that would represent “something less.”

His proposal came as a surprise to at least one Straits-area chamber of commerce official. Janet Peterson, director of the St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce, said she had understood the Bridge Authority was heading toward a plan that would switch the bridge walk date to the Sunday before Labor Day, and do so in a way that would eliminate the need for buses to haul participants back and forth.

She said local chambers and tourism bureaus have small numbers of employees and tight budgets, which would make it difficult for them to come up with substantial money or handle logistics for the walk. As it is, she said, chamber volunteers staff a bus loading and unloading service for participants who use the parking lot at Little Bear East Arena in St. Ignace.

“We barely make it through the year if everybody pays their dues,” said Mrs. Peterson. “We’ve never-before been asked for anything financially.”

Besides Mr. Steudle’s proposal, the board unanimously approved two others: to continue allowing an annual bridge walk and to continue having it on Labor Day. To hold it on any other day of the year, board member Dan Musser III said, “would be devastating for Mackinaw City . . . and, I know personally, would be devastating to Mackinac Island.”

Costs ballooned substantially because the span was closed to all traffic for the first time during the entire walk, which was strictly limited to the 5½ hours from 6:30 a.m. to noon. To move all the walkers back and forth in that period, the Bridge Authority contracted for 126 school buses from as far away as Lansing, compared to about 70 buses in past years.

Mr. Steudle estimates it cost about $400,000 for this year’s turnout of 25,000 walkers and the walk could cost $800,000 if there were a turnout double that.

There also was substantial added expense for armed Michigan State Police officers, working overtime on the holiday, to be stationed along the route, at the bus loading area in Mackinaw City, and on every busload of walk participants. The state troopers replaced unarmed military reservists who had been stationed along the walk route in other years.

Costs will continue to mount, Mr. Steudle said, because the added security measures will be necessary from now on. The State Police strongly recommended them, owing to worries about terrorism incidents elsewhere in which vehicles have been used to attack pedestrians. In fact, Bridge Authority Executive Secretary Robert Sweeney told the board the State Police want similarly heightened security for nine of the 16 other annual Bridge crossing events — those involving motor vehicle-vulnerable participants such as bicyclists on the DALMAC ride from Lansing to the Straits of Mackinac just before Labor Day and riders on the Snowmobile the Mighty Mac in December.

Because of the new security realities, the Bridge Authority had considered other solutions for the traditional Labor Day walk, including a proposal to hold it on another day when there’s less traffic on I-75, such as the Sunday before Labor Day, or a proposal to have participants walk halfway across from either direction, then double back, eliminating the need for buses to haul them from Mackinaw City to the starting point near St. Ignace.

Only a few citizens showed up at the November 20 downstate meeting, the second at which the Bridge Authority sought public comment. Among them was DALMAC Director Joel Wickham of St. Johns, who urged the board not to switch the walk to the Sunday before Labor Day, when about 400 of the 1,4000 DALMAC participants traditionally ride across the Bridge from Mackinaw City to St. Ignace.

“I can’t put 1,400 bicycle riders on the road to Mackinaw City at the same time all those pedestrians are there,” said Mr. Wickham. “That wouldn’t be safe, so we would not be able to continue at that point.”

Of the 411 public comments the Bridge Authority received on its web page, 179 came from DALMAC participants urging it not to change the date of the walk. Mr. Steudle said a fair number of commenters -probably non-Bridge walk participants – suggested doing away with the event entirely.

Nancy Norton, a retired Lansing schoolteacher, liked the idea of an alternate day for the walk and had been intending to suggest Sunday until she heard Mr. Wickham’s comments. She said she has participated in the walk since the 1980s, but didn’t do so this year in part because she was due later Labor Day for a Copper Harbor wedding.

“I didn’t feel that I would be able to get back across the bridge without a (traffic) backup,” she said. “I was glad to see that you didn’t have any trouble with that.”

In fact, the expected gridlock from full bridge closure for 5½ hours didn’t materialize. Within half an hour of the bridge reopening, vehicular traffic was running smoothly across it, according to Mr. Sweeney.

Mr. Steudle said, however, the Bridge Authority can’t count on that being the case in future years. He called for a deeper study of the impact of the new security policies on traffic and Upper Peninsula tourism. Part of the reason big traffic tie-ups didn’t occur this year was that tourists, alerted by a widespread publicity campaign, left early for downstate destinations so they could get across the bridge before Labor Day. That, of course, meant northern Michigan hospitality businesses lost part of their traditional Labor Day weekend revenue.

No matter what the Bridge Walk arrangements for 2018 and beyond, it’s going to be difficult to accommodate more than about 30,000 participants, according to Mr. Sweeney. Moving the Mackinaw City bus staging area to the high school next year would allow boarding of 11 buses at a time, compared to eight at a time at the current waterfront location, he said, but that only would mitigate one of this year’s problems a bit. Many later-arriving participants stood in line for a long time, only to be told it was too late for them to cross to St. Ignace and begin the walk.

“We feel badly for those people,” Bridge Authority Board Chairman William Gnodke of Charlevoix said. “But as many people observed, in the public comments that we received, you’ve got to get there before 10 o’clock in the morning if you expect to be transported and walk.”

In an interview after the board meeting, Mr. Steudle said he hoped business leaders in the Straits area could come up with a plan to take over the logistics of the bridge walk — arranging for bus transportation and other such details. Jeff Cranson, Lansing spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said Mr. Steudle plans to begin talks with business owners in the Straits area before the February Bridge Authority meeting.

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There is a simple,

There is a simple, cost-effective and safe way to keep the Bridge Walk in place for years to come. Here is how you start. Write this question across the top of a whiteboard; How can we let 80,000 people walk across the bridge safely, without tying up traffic for hours, at a minimum cost? Then draw a line down the middle of the whiteboard. On the left side write down all the reasons why it can't be done. No, on the left side put a big X because a solution has to be found to keep this annual tradition in place. Then on the right side write down every idea that might work. If the Bridge Authority's Board will do the hard work required to preserve this tradition, there is an amazingly simple solution out there to solve this problem it just needs to be found. Finding that solution starts with excepting there is a solution that contains costs, keep everyone safe and keep traffic flowing. There is a common sense solution if "it can't be done" is removed as an option. Jim Plouffe

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