HOUGHTON - Those riding off-road vehicles will no longer be escorted over the Portage Lake Lift Bridge - the only means to get from Houghton to Hancock without the use of a trailer.
Skip Schulz, president of the Michigan Trails and Recreation Alliance of the Land and Environment in Ontonagon, said the group was notified by the Hancock City Police that escorts across the bridge were no longer being allowed. The only way to get to connecting trails between Houghton and Hancock is to be escorted over the lift bridge.
Schulz said at the moment, he is working quickly to resolve the issue and hopes to put together a meeting with state officials to work out the matter. The issue, he said, is it's illegal for police to escort vehicles across the bridge, as it is a liability.
Gazette file photo
Off-road vehicles will no longer be allowed to be ridden over the Portage Lake Lift Bridge. Previously, they could be ridden with an escort.
"Until this issue is resolved, please be aware that you will not have a way to cross from the city of Hancock, back to Houghton, via ORV," he said.
The Michigan Department of Transportation has jurisdiction over the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, which is the only means to get from Houghton to Hancock by any vehicle. ORV tourism, like snowmobiling, is popular in the local area, and Schulz said tourism will be affected greatly if the issue cannot be resolved.
ORV riders like to ride from Ontonagon to Copper Harbor, and Schulz said he fears all the work the Keweenaw ATV Club did to develop trails to Copper Harbor would be jeopardized.
"We can't even get to all the work they did," he said.
The only option would be to transport ORVs by trailer across the bridge.
"It would be nice if we could get it where there are certain times of the day where the bridge can be lowered, so the boaters know, and we wouldn't be breaking the law that we're trying to change," he said.
That law is an important issue to Rep. Matt Huuki, R-Atlantic Mine, and Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who have been working to change the law to allow ORVs to use the shoulder of select state and federal highway bridges, along with select state and federal highway right-of-ways.
Schulz said if MDOT would agree to lower the bridge, much like what is done for snowmobiles to cross in the winter, ORVs wouldn't need an escort and would be able to cross at certain times.
"(The bridge) is always dropped in the winter," he said.
Schulz said Hancock City Police Chief Mike Beaudoin came up with the idea to lower the bridge for ORVs and also said the ban was not something the police wanted to do.
"... They simply do not want to break current Michigan State law," he said. "He understands and brought the idea up."
Beaudoin said escorting ORVs is technically against the law and because it's a liability, it's time to end the service.
"Snowmobiles cross underneath in the winter and the ORVs could cross in the summer if the state of Michigan would lower the bridge each time a group wanted to come, like they raise it for boats that go through," he said.
Beaudoin said for the previous system, ORV riders would call for an escort and there were some incidents where single riders would call and get mad if the police didn't come quick enough, he said. The police can technically provide an escort, but are liable if someone is injured while escorting, he added.
"It's not that we don't want to help these people," he said. "It's good for restaurant owners, the hotel owners and gas station owners. I'm for it."
Mi-TRALE will be taking down the signs stating riders have to call Houghton County Sheriff's Department, Houghton City Police or Hancock City Police to request an escort over the bridge.
In the meantime, Mi-TRALE is working on setting up a meeting with Houghton County Sheriff's Department, Houghton City Police, Hancock City Police and Michigan Department of Transportation.
Schulz said he will be traveling to Houghton soon to find a route through Houghton. The current trails end near the city of Houghton RV Park, he said, and an escort was given from that point to Hancock. What is preferred is to find a route traveling on the other side of Houghton that connects right with the bridge.
"I still have to get MDOT to approve lowering that deck," he said. "I'm still finding a way to organize a meeting so all the key players can be there."