The dream of being able to hike or bicycle across Washtenaw County, and even beyond to Jackson and Wayne counties, is closer than ever with new funding sources and private-public partnerships.
Parks and recreation officials say the completion of the Washtenaw County Border-to-Border Trail (B2B) is ahead of schedule, due in part to the efforts of the nonprofit Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative (HWPI).
The idea behind the B2B was born around 2000. Parks systems in and around Ann Arbor already had miles of trails, and park commissioners considered extending them to link cities all along the Huron River.
Some of the first projects had the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission partnering with St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, Eastern Michigan University, and Washtenaw Community College, building segments just east of US-23, and then extending existing trails in Gallup and Parker Mill parks. Around the same time, the county began branding the concept as the Border-to-Border Trail, says parks and recreation commission director Coy Vaughn.
Parks planner Peter Sanderson says that over time the goal became to tie as many city centers together as possible by connecting existing trails and park systems.
"I feel that's a very important goal, to create a spine of non-motorized trail through the whole county," he says. "The original route was about 35 miles long, from the Livingston-Washtenaw border through Dexter and Ann Arbor, and from Ypsilanti to the Wayne (County) border."
Today, more than 40 miles of trail are completed. The total goal is 75 miles, as a fork connecting Chelsea to the trail has been added.
Accelerating the timeline
Sanderson says construction in the Dexter area from 2009 to 2015 catalyzed growth and brought HWPI to the table.
"In 2015, the Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative came onto the scene and conceived of the idea of connecting Dexter to Chelsea and Chelsea to Stockbridge, tying into the existing miles of trail in Lakelands Trail State Park," Sanderson says.
The new segments around Hudson Mills Metropark and throughout Dexter proved to be extremely popular. In two years of using permanent counters to monitor traffic on the Dexter trails, there were 360,000 passes in front of the sensor.
"That's quite a bit for a city of 5,000," Sanderson says.
County residents west of Ann Arbor didn't really understand the B2B because in the beginning it was mostly a project in Ann Arbor and Ypsi, Vaughn says.
"Building the segment in Dexter got the attention of the whole county on what this could be," he says.
At the same time, Michigan governor Rick Snyder's office came up with the idea for the Iron Belle Trail, meant to connect 48 Michigan municipalities with more than 2,000 miles of trails, and the Washtenaw parks commission began looking at how it could tie the B2B into that project.
HWPI not only brought attention and new ideas to the B2B project but also another funding source, as the partnership was formalized in 2016.
The future of the B2B project
Another 2.6-mile trail segment along M-52 northwest of Chelsea will be finished by mid-November, allowing bicyclists access to Waterloo and Pinckney recreation areas from Chelsea. Funding is in place to finish connecting the trail to Jackson County by the end of 2019.
Funding for much of the new work will be split roughly in thirds. About a third will come from a four-year parks millage, another third from grants, and another third from private funding, largely raised by HWPI.
On the county's eastern side, the parks commission is in talks with Wayne County and the Huron-Clinton Metroparks to connect segments of the trail in Ypsilanti Township to the trailhead at Lower Huron Metropark in Belleville. From there, cyclists can follow a trail that takes them through the parks system and the towns of Flat Rock, Rockwood, and Gibraltar to the shores of Lake Erie.
Additional efforts are underway to close gaps in the existing miles of trail, especially in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, and involve partnerships with cities, townships, private groups, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The parks commission hopes to complete the entire B2B by the early 2020s, Vaughn says.
Interested Washtenaw County residents are welcome to get updates and give input at the next meeting of the Friends of the Border to Border Trail, at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at the REI store in Ann Arbor.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Sarah Rigg.