ST. JOSEPH — The owner of Scooter Joe’s Rentals and Harbor Shores officials are trying to garner public support to allow low-speed vehicles to cross bridges and golf carts to cruise the streets of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor.
An online petition has been launched to request lowering the speed limit on the Bicentennial Bridge, between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, from 40 to 35 miles per hour, that would permit the use of low-speed vehicles on that roadway. The petition also asks that the leaders in St. Joseph, Benton Harbor and Benton Township authorize the use of golf carts on their public roads.
The response has been positive so far, said Joe Allen, owner of Scooter Joe’s. All of the several dozen online comments received in the first 48 hours were in favor, he said. Allen rents bicycles and surrey cabs in downtown St. Joseph, and this summer began offering low-speed vehicles from a location at the Inn at Harbor Shores where he also rents bikes and kayaks.
St. Joseph city commissioners allowed the low-speed vehicle rentals, but they are restricted to streets with speed limits of 35 mph or lower. This prohibits them from traveling on the Bicentennial and Blossomland bridges into St. Joseph.
Allen said they would like to have the speed limit on the north-bound lane of the Blossomland Bridge, from Port Street to the Whitwam Drive exit, lowered to 35, as well. But for now they are focusing on the Bicentennial Bridge, which would provide connections to St. Joseph, downtown Benton Harbor and the Arts District, beaches and the Harbor Shores golf course.
The website notes that the state regulation “allows municipalities with a population of 30,000 or less to authorize, by resolution, the use of a standard golf cart on public roads with speed limits of no more than 30 mph.”
If a municipality authorizes the use of golf carts, it can request that the Michigan Department of Transportation allow the use on a state trunk line, such as the two bridges. The request to change the speed limit would be made by the municipality to MDOT. A speed study would be conducted on the roadway, and the 85th percentile of all vehicle speeds would be designated as the speed limit.
St. Joseph City Manager John Hodgson cautioned that a speed study could have the opposite effect anticipated.
“I would note that we have been told by MDOT that based on their experience, speed surveys are more likely to result in an increase in speed than a decrease, and that the community has to agree to accept the results of a speed survey when making the request, so if higher speeds are not desired, there is a potential downside to asking,” Hodgson said.
In addition, while it is possible for MDOT to allow golf carts to cross bridges in some circumstances, this would require the speed limits to be lowered to 30 mph on the bridges rather than to the 35 mph that would allow low-speed vehicles to cross, he added.
A bridge too far?
Many Michigan communities allow golf carts, including South Haven. Allen said he spoke with the police chief there, who reported no problems or accidents in the three years the carts have been permitted.
Low-speed vehicles can operate up to 25 mph, but Allen limits speed limits with his vehicles to less than 20. He also requires operators to be at least 21 years old. The vehicles are registered by the state and come with several safety features, including seat belts.
Changing speed limits “is not an easy task,” Allen acknowledged, and supporters decided that getting public support was “critical.”
Allen said his low-speed vehicle rentals have been popular. But customers who want to use the carts south of the bridge must have them delivered.
Kerry Wright, director of real estate sales and marketing for Harbor Shores, has been helping spread the word. The golf carts and low-speed vehicles are another way to get people around, like biking and hiking trails and proposed water taxis, he said.
Lisa Altman, a Harbor Shores Village resident for three years, said she and her husband use a golf cart to get around and have encountered no safety issues.
“That way we don’t always have to jump on our bikes or into the car,” Altman said. She sees the low-speed vehicles as another option for enjoying the amenities in the Twin Cities.
Upton Drive resident Jon Woodbury is another golf cart fan, and said it allows his family to visit businesses and beaches without using their car.
Without regulations, the people using carts is “a free-for-all,” he said, and suggested that city regulations could eliminate these problems.
Bill Chickering, a Ridgeway Street resident and a Berrien County commissioner, takes a different view.
“Golf carts are a real safety hazard when mixed in with two ton-metal automobiles,” Chickering offered via email. “Golf carts do not have appropriate safety features to protect their passengers and they present a visibility issue to cars and trucks. Because of their inherent speed limitations they will create traffic congestion problems as can be seen daily in South Haven.”
Lowering the speed limit on the bridges would create congestion and a safety hazard, as well, he added.
“If the (St. Joseph ) City Commission plans to seriously consider this ridiculous request I hope they allow their constituents to debate this and even vote on it,” Chickering said.
Wright said he has spoken with Hodgson and his staff, and they seem open to discussing the idea.
“There are strong voices on both sides of the issue,” said Wright, and he is hoping they can reach a common-sense solution.
Hodgson expects the issue to be part of a study session this fall.
Allen plans to talk to commissioners at the end of the summer season, when they review his low-speed vehicle operation. He would like to pave the way for the vehicles by next May, when the Senior PGA Championship returns.
More information is available at: www.gojoerentals.com/low-speed-connection.html.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak