By Mike Whittlesey
When a controversial issue or significant event occurs, sometimes it is difficult for those closest to it to step back and look at the bigger picture.
Consider the Cedar Valley Nature Trail bridge that crosses Wolf Creek in La Porte City. The bridge was closed in September 2015, blocking the path trail users take on their way to and from Gilbertville.
As an avid user and supporter of the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, let me be clear: the sooner access can be restored to the trail, the better. In a perfect world, open access to the trail would never be threatened by aging infrastructure and the ongoing demands of regular trail maintenance.
But we don’t live in a perfect world.
What once was a new recreational trail system in 1984, now offers evidence that portions of the pathway have not been aging gracefully over the past 30 years.
It would be easy to look outside our community for a solution to the problem. True, it’s not our bridge. The responsibility for maintaining it falls under Black Hawk County jurisdiction.
“So let them pay for it,” some might say. A most excellent suggestion, if it were only that easy. Where should the County go to get this funding? Not from the Conservation budget, which is limited to $25,000 annually for trail maintenance. Not from the Board of Supervisors, whose only likely commitment will be $77,000 for an engineering study. Not from the state either, as hope for bridge funding has plummeted, much like state revenue estimates. How about the Black Hawk County Gaming Association? Nope, they’ve already pledged more than a million dollars to County Conservation for the long overdue upgrades to the Hartman Nature Center.
Taking a step back from the trees reveals the forest of complications the Conservation Board must navigate to restore the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. First, it’s important to remember that recreational trails are not essential services. When lots are drawn for who gets funded by the taxpayers, Conservation, by default, often gets a shorter stick.
Second, when it comes to fixing trail bridges, La Porte City’s bridge is one of nine along the Cedar Valley Nature Trail in need of some type of repair. Clearly, without a consistent funding mechanism in place, maintenance of recreational trails in the county will continue to be rough going, as Conservation officials are seemingly in a constant scramble to find the money for needed repairs.
Recently, Vern Fish, former Executive Director of County Conservation, wrote a guest editorial for the Waterloo Courier. In it, he wrote about the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, created in 2010 when Iowa voters showed their support for it by a nearly 63% majority.
Haven’t heard of the Trust? That’s because its funding is dependent upon an increase in the state’s sales tax. The next time the sales tax is raised, the first three-eighths of one cent, by law, goes to fund the Trust. For the past seven years, the Trust, which would help pay for soil and water conservation, watershed protection, trails, lake restoration and more, has sat empty, awaiting the legislative action needed to fund it.
This year, legislation has been introduced that would raise the sales tax one-eighth of a cent each year for three years to begin funding the Trust. The increase in sales tax would be offset by an identical reduction of income taxes, minimizing the tax burden on Iowans. For more information about the Trust, logon to www.iowaswaterandlandlegacy.org/resources/.
In the meantime, when it comes to open access on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, who will speak for La Porte City? If $600,000 is too much to pay for realigning the trail around the defective bridge, the initial plan developed by County Conservation and subsequently criticized by a group of trail enthusiasts based in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, where is the $1.5 – $2.5 million needed to repair the bridge going to be found? In the words of Vern Fish, “It is time to ‘Fund the Trust’ and fulfill the mandate that the citizens of Iowa approved in 2010.”
On the other hand, area residents who believe it’s strictly the county’s problem to solve should be prepared to wait several years for something to happen.