Mayor Bill Tierney talked faster as he went along.
I was meeting with Portage’s long-time mayor in his office on an otherwise quiet March afternoon. Tierney is a fit 60 year-old who retired from a career as a postmaster by taking up the mayor’s office again, a job he first held in his forties. He also works as a paramedic and many days he rides his bike to and from work.
But what had the mayor really exited this afternoon was the Portage Area Trails and Heritage System (P.A.T.H.S.). The idea, hatched many years ago by dedicated community volunteers, was to create over 60 miles of bike and pedestrian paths in around Portage. The trails would be keyed to the area’s rich natural and human history. The centerpiece would be the Wauona Trail, the original portage route for Native Americans and voyageurs between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers.
Six other trails would join the network with such evocative names as the Portage Canal Towpath, the Big Loop, the Sandy County Canoe Trail, Pine Island, Black Hawk and the North Loop. There would also be connections to the Ice Age Trail and a Historic Downtown Walking Tour.
The network would link the Indian Agency House (the only one in America still on its original site), the Portage Canal, the Surgeon’s Quarters at Fort Winnebago, Pine Island Wildlife Area, Duck Creek, the historic downtown and, of course, the Fox and Wisconsin rivers.
Some of the trail network already exists while more needs to be built and connections have to be made. Some of the bike trails would be on city streets. Overall, the project is estimated to cost about $4 million in today’s dollars plus some amount for maintenance. The mayor hopes to complete the project in a decade.
On the afternoon I met with Mayor Tierney he was a little bit nervous because on the following evening he was asking the common council to adopt the P.A.T.H.S. project in concept, knowing full well that they were taking the next step in committing to the funding as well. The council took a straw poll and the result? Nine to nothing in favor of moving forward!
This would be an exciting development at any time. But it’s especially crucial right now as we fight in the legislature to restore Transportation Alternatives funding and the Stewardship Fund. Both TAP and Stewardship could help in the development of this network, which probably can’t be completed with local funds alone. And, in fact, this would be a valuable and exciting statewide resource as Portage is the epicenter of so much rich state history.
The idea behind P.A.T.H.S. to combine a trail network linking and weaving together the natural and historic features of the area was expressed nicely in a quote from Aldo Leopold on the project’s informational brochure:
“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend: you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left.”
While the federal and state governments struggle for funding answers and sometimes seem to have open antipathy to cycling, walking, and historic preservation, local governments like Portage just keep moving forward. We hope that we can not only turn back the bad public policy proposed at the state level, but start to transfer some of that local positive energy to officials at other levels of government.