MISSION, Kan. - A walking trail in a Johnson County community does not sound too controversial on its surface. However, when NBC Action News discovered the seven-figure price tag—and then saw the visible results—taxpayers raised their eyebrows in surprise.
Trail causes frustration
For decades along Johnson Drive, Werner's has been a go-to location for sausage and other German specialties.
Dave Miller has operated the Mission, Kan., staple for the past 16 years and it's safe to say he knows a thing or two about food. But when the long-time business owner looks across the street, what he sees makes him lose his appetite.
"Waste of money! Waste of money! Waste of money!" says Miller, never shy to express his opinion.
The business owner is talking about Rock Creek Trail, a walking path funded by taxpayer dollars. However, the gravel-covered section running through the heart of Mission's business district is not exactly a source of civic pride.
"It is not used that often and it's a waste of time and effort, especially for the amount of money spent on it," said Miller.
Seven-figure price tag raises eyebrows
Rock Creek Trail was constructed as a two-phase project. "Phase I" runs from Metcalf to Lamar, is nicely paved, and was completed three years ago.
"Phase II" is a different story. The section of the trail running near Johnson Drive businesses consists of large gravel. The surface is bumpy, muddy and weedy.
Financial documents show "Phase II" had a price tag of more than $1 million. The majority of the funds (80 percent) came from federal Transportation Enhancement (TE) and Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) grants. Johnson County and the City of Mission covered the remaining 20 percent of the costs.
The price tag surprised Mission resident Francis Sharp, one of the only people NBC Action News could find using the path on a 70-degree autumn day.
"It looks like a work barely started, rather than a completed task," said Sharp. "A million dollars seems awfully steep for what's here."
Melodie Abernathy recently moved her daycare business into a home that borders the gravel-covered trail. She told NBC Action News she has considered taking her kids for a walk, but decided against it because the path looks "too rough."
"I don't know what their million dollars has been spent on, but this trail is not paved and it looks pretty ratty at this point," Abernathy said.
Project officials respond
Mission City Administrator Michael Scanlon responded to questions about the aesthetics of Rock Creek Trail. He explained the trail was actually designed to have the temporary surface because it sits in the flood plain. It would not make sense to put in asphalt or concrete and have to tear it out because of flooding, Scanlon said.
But NBC Action News asked why the trail does not look more inviting. Scanlon admitted the large gravel has generated complaints from area cyclists. Other gravel trails typically consist of crushed limestone, like Brookside's Trolley Trail.
So what is the message to taxpayers who see the cost and then wonder about the results?
"It's a worthwhile investment," said Scanlon. "It connects our city from the east to the west, and it will help feed our downtown corridor."
Is it a trail to nowhere? Continue on the next page to find out.
Is it a "trail to nowhere?"
Part of the problem is Rock Creek Trail was supposed to lead to the now infamous Gateway Project, a stalled development that has been nothing more than a huge eyesore of weeds and dirt for five years.
To people like Miller, the trail is a reminder of projects that do not live up to expectations. Pair those sentiments with recent outcry about Mission's so-called "driveway tax," and it begins to explain some of the frustration expressed by business owners and residents.
Miller wishes all the money had been poured into street improvements instead. While some argue it is money well spent, others sarcastically refer to it as a "trail to nowhere."
"It doesn't take you anywhere and it doesn't bring customers to my store or anyone else's business," he said.
Will trail concerns be smoothed out?
Scanlon said city officials are trying to acquire funding through a Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to get the trail permanently paved. The estimated cost is around $75,000, which Scanlon said is too high to afford from the city's Special Parks and Recreation Budget.
Word on the TIGER grant will likely come in December. If that does not work out, the City of Mission will approach the Kansas Department of Transportation about receiving any surplus funds from the TE and CMAQ grants. The main difference would be the local governments would need to fund 20 percent of that cost, whereas the TIGER grant pays for the entire project with federal cash.
The original funds for Rock Creek Trail were allocated by the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). They are then distributed to the KDOT, which handles reimbursement requests as the projects develop.
"That really looks bad. It needs to be fixed," said Aaron Bartlett, a transportation planner with MARC. "Rarely is there an issue when we need to get involved with a project after construction. I'm glad to hear it's getting paved."
View Phase II of Rock Creek Trail in a larger map