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County should help Albion with new bridge

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 May 2014 at 12:00 am

Editorial

Photo by Tom Rivers – The Clarendon Street bridge could be demolished and the street blocked off due to the rising costs of a bridge replacement.

ALBION – It’s one of Albion’s busiest side streets, a gateway to the school campus, Bullard Park and the eastern side of the village.

But soon Clarendon Street will likely be a dead-end near the railroad tracks, according to the Village Board. The cost to replace the bridge jumped unexpectedly by about $600,000 and that increase would fall squarely on village taxpayers.

The state and federal governments have committed $1.3 million to the bridge replacement. Neither the state or federal government will give more to the project. Albion’s share has shot up from about $200,000 to $775,000.

If Albion borrowed that money it could be a $60,000 to $70,000 annual hit to villagers the next 20 years.

The Village Board says village taxpayers can’t afford that increase, especially after a new village budget raised village tax rates from $16.86 to $17.48 per $1,000 of assessed property. That tax rate is the highest of any village in the region.

The board last month also voted to raise water and sewer rates by 25 cents to $4.35 per 1,000 gallons.

The village tax rates are climbing mainly because its tax base is shrinking. The assessments dropped by another $2.7 million from a year ago. The sky is falling.

Albion has the unusual burden of owning a sizable bridge. In most counties, anything off the state highway that is bigger than a 20-foot-long culvert belongs to the county.

The Albion bridge is about 40 years old. When the village took on the bridge 40 years ago, there was still a sense of prosperity around here with Lipton’s and other food processors. The downtown was full of vibrant independent merchants.

In most other places, the Clarendon Street bridge wouldn’t be the village’s problem. It would be the county’s. The county’s tax base has been growing, despite getting dragged down by the villages, and its budget totals about $80 million annually compared to $6 million for the village. It’s in a far better position to take on the bridge expense.

Albion village officials are prepared to give up on the bridge replacement and instead use some of the $1.3 million in state and federal money to demolish the structure and block off the section by the railroad tracks. Some of the money will get turned back to the state and federal government. Knocking down the bridge and closing off a section of the street will spare the village from the $60,000 to $70,000 annually over 20 years.

(The state won’t allow the village to make Clarendon Street a railroad crossing without removing two other crossings in the village. Because Clarendon Street is fairly busy, it would take two less-travelled side streets to make up for adding a crossing on Clarendon Street.)

There may be a fat guard rail in the immediate future at Clarendon Street with wild grass, brush and weeds. It won’t just stop traffic, but it will be a psychological barrier, a sign of a community in decline.

It will also be a hassle. About 1,600 vehicles cross the bridge daily, including many school buses. A closed bridge will result in a 2/3 mile detour or about 1,000 extra miles daily.

If you factor 20 miles per gallon of gas by the 1,000 miles that will mean motorists are will buy 50 more gallons of gas a day due to the detour, spending about $200 more a day. Multiply that by 365 days and you have $73,000 in added costs to motorists, not to mention lost time and more congested village side streets.

That $73,000 in added gas can be avoided and a similar amount of money could instead be directed to getting the bridge replaced.

The detour will cost the school district. I asked school leaders yesterday if the school district could help with the local share of the bridge, but state law won’t allow the district to direct money to projects off the school campus. It would be considered a gift to the village, and that’s not allowed, Albion school officials said.

The county is the best hope for getting this done. It has a history of working with towns and villages, devoting county resources to projects that are often viewed as economic development in the village and towns.

The bridge should be viewed as economic and community development. Shutting it down will hurt commerce on the eastern side of the village, in particular DK Autobody next to the north side of the bridge and the Crooked Door Tavern. Both businesses generate sales tax that goes in county coffers.

Regarding the sales tax, the county has frozen the share to local villages and towns since 2001. If the villages and towns weren’t frozen, and experienced the increases in sales tax revenue at the same rate as the county since 2001, Albion would be in a better position to fund the local share for the bridge project.

The county should step in before it’s too late. The county could pay that annual bond payment over 20 years. Perhaps the town of Albion and Genesee Valley Transportation, owner of the railroad, could also chip in to help pay that local share.

Rick Papaj, local projects unit supervisor for the DOT, told me on Tuesday that communities can be creative in how they pay for the local share. It doesn’t have to fall on the village.