Bikenomics At Work in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

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As a result of the mining legacy of the Gogebic Range (Northern Wisconsin and the western end of Michigan’s upper peninsula, two great railroad lines were built to haul out iron ore out of the region. And since the surrounding towns were built before cars took over the landscape, our downtowns, neighborhoods and schools are all located within an easy walk from the railroads. Now, these abandoned rail lines run right through the center of five cities on the Gogebic Range. And having two rail lines eliminates any argument about whether they will be converted for use by bicycles and pedestrians or motorized vehicles. Even so, despite these near-perfect conditions, many efforts to build a bike trail along this corridor were unsuccessful. Objections centered on the question, “why spend money on bike trails with all those pot-holes that need filling?”

In the beginning, the rationale for the trail system was generally recreational or related to tourism. Then we learned that more and more young people were looking for a place to live where they can have a high quality of life, rather than finding the best job. So we focused on the need to attract and retain young workers. And then the major employers in town got excited. Similar to what happened in Houston, TX, they understood that in order to attract young people who wanted to live nearby and work for them, they needed to create an attractive environment. They focused on building a stronger community and developing a network of regional bike trails. With their support, credibility, name recognition and connections, we jumped the hurdle and started to build traction for this long-held dream. Every single municipality, chamber of commerce and school district along the proposed sixteen mile trail passed resolutions of support for the trail’s vision. Now we have $1.2 million in place to build trailheads and the first phase of the trail, including the retrofit of a historic train trestle over the river separating Wisconsin and Michigan. And another million dollars of grant funding for phase II is going out the door as we speak.

Bikenomics is right, by demonstrating the economic justification for bike trails, it is much easier for the community to support, and even demand action on the project. For us the justification was attracting and retaining young people to build a workforce for our local employers, for others it may be some other economic angle.

If you’re interested, here is some more information on the Gogebic Range Next Generation Initiative to attract and retain young people.