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Sarpy Board Blocks Bike Trail by Denying Permit

A good example of the concerns of elected officials; see the editorial reply following the articled.

By Todd Cooper
World-Herald Staff Writer, Omaha World Herald
, September 22, 1999

Map of Nebraska A $2 million project that eventually would link bike trails from Lincoln to Omaha hit a major roadblock Tuesday when Sarpy County commissioners voted against allowing the renovation of a bridge that would carry bikers across the Platte River.

Saying they were fed up with federal money being used for bike trails, three commissioners voted to deny a permit that would allow Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District officials to transform the abandoned Rock Island Railroad bridge into a hiking-biking trail. The bridge near South Bend has been touted as the centerpiece of a long-range project to join trail systems from Lincoln to Omaha.

NRD officials, who appeared stunned after the vote, said they never anticipated a problem in getting the permit. The project, which has been in planning for at least three years, had been approved by several governmental bodies, including the Papio-Missouri River NRD and the Lower Platte South NRD. The state also endorsed the project, securing $1 million in federal funding for the $2 million project. Ben Higgins, an engineer with the Papio-Missouri River NRD, said the county went beyond its scope in denying the permit. "They don't have the authority," he said. "They're making a political call that has nothing to do with the flood-plain permit."

Higgins had presented to the board evidence of how the project would improve the flow of the Platte River under the bridge. Workers would make the Platte less of a flood threat by removing four of the 26 pillars that support the bridge and by clearing out other obstructions that typically catch debris and cause ice jams that can lead to flooding, Higgins said.

County officials typically deny permits for building or renovations in the flood plain only when they pose a flood threat. Ken Tex, Sarpy County planning and building director, recommended approval of the permit, saying this project would improve conditions on the Platte. Commissioners Don Knott, Jack Postlewait and Tim Schram said they would rather see the old Rock Island Railroad bridge, which has been abandoned, torn down so that the flood threat is completely removed. Higgins said such a project could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The three commissioners complained about the amount of federal funding that is used for bike paths instead of highways. "We've done everything but stand on our head for federal dollars for roads, and we can't get it for several years," Schram said after the meeting. "And then a bike trail comes along, and it gets money in no time."

Knott said he would like to see a survey of Sarpy County residents to determine what percentage actually use bike paths. He said no one rides a bike to work, and he thinks few people are going to ride their bikes from Omaha to Lincoln.

"How far do they want to go, California?" Knott asked after the vote. "The trail system is all out of hand. We've got enough bike trails in Sarpy County."

Higgins said that if Nebraska doesn't use the federal money, it will simply go to bike trails elsewhere in the country. It won't go to highways, he said. Hundreds of hikers and bikers have supported the project, Higgins said. NRD officials said they probably will return to the Sarpy County Board next month to plead their case again.

Officials had hoped that contractors would begin bidding on the project by February and that the renovation would be completed by next fall. Cass County has yet to vote on a flood-plain permit for the refurbishing of the bridge on its half of the Platte River.

Commissioners Tim Gay and Tom O'Hara, who voted for the project, questioned whether the board was overstepping its bounds. Gay and O'Hara said they also didn't agree with using federal tax money for bike trails. However, Gay and O'Hara said, the board shouldn't deny a flood-plain permit when all of the evidence indicates that the project will lower the risks of flooding.

Gay told his fellow commissioners to become members of the NRD board if they didn't agree with spending money on bike trails. "We're going to say, 'We know best' . . . when it already has been set up and approved," he told his colleagues. "You're overriding so many other governmental entities by doing this."

An Obstruction in Sarpy County

Editorial, 9-24-99, Omaha World Herald

Aesop, that noted fabler of old, told of the dog in the manger. The livestock were hungry and tried to get at the hay. But the canine, despite the fact that he couldn't eat the hay, barked and drove them away. So in the end, none of the animals benefited from it. Today, Aesop would feel right at home in Sarpy County.

Here's the sequence of events: Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District officials sought to transform an abandoned railroad bridge over the Platte River as part of an extended hiking-biking trail. Federal tax dollars are available to do this. As part of the process, four bridge pillars would be removed. A bicycle doesn't need as much support as a locomotive, after all, and deleting some pillars would allow the river to flow more freely, reducing the possibility of flooding. Everyone would benefit. So the NRD put the matter before the Sarpy County Board as a matter of flood-plain improvement.

A majority of the Sarpy commissioners, Don Knott, Jack Postlewait and Tim Schram, said they've had it with tax money being spent on bike trails at the same time they can't get enough highway funding. So they said no, adding that they'd rather have the whole bridge removed. You could sort of understand that, if it would get them more road money. It won't. The funds are unrelated. Any money not spent on that bicycle trail will be spent on somebody else's bicycle trail, somewhere else.

You could sort of understand that, if it would get the bridge removed. It won't. That was never offered. By all appearances, it won't be. It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars that aren't budgeted anywhere. In effect, then, the commissioners were asked to say yes to a project that would reduce the chances of flooding in their county, but they said no. Acting on a side agenda that was eating at them, they answered a question that wasn't asked. What kind of stewardship of the public trust is that?

A separate editorial could be written on the merits of bicycle trails, which are so ample that they need no defense here. But Sarpy County residents do well to ask themselves a different set of questions. They could start with how much they enjoy being represented by people who can't or won't be bothered to comprehend the issue being put before them. They could progress to how they feel about officials who vote against the interests of residents who are in a flood plain. They could continue to whether they like the prospect that jobs and contracts which could benefit their county might wind up in another state. It could be a long list.

Fortunately, it may not matter. It seems doubtful whether it is even necessary to consult the commissioners further. In neighboring Cass County, which also has a say in the project, the zoning administrator plans to approve it with little fuss. The Cass County Board won't even get involved. And every other governmental or quasi-governmental entity that has any connection to the project signed off on it long ago.

NRD officials say they intend to renew their request to the Sarpy County Board. If or when they do, Knott, Postlewait and Schram should change their minds. As things stand, all they're doing is flaunting their own ignorance and embarrassing their constituents.

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