NILES -- It'll be two more weeks before the Niles Township Board decides whether the currently designed at-grade crossing of busy U.S. 12 remains in play for the 34-mile recreation trail between Niles and Mishawaka.

After much discussion at a pair of Monday night township board meetings regarding pedestrian safety at such a crossing, the board put off a decision until March 18.

The delay was prompted by the absence of Trustee Herschel Hoese, who reportedly was ill, and a general consensus that a vote on such a controversial issue should include the entire board.

Technically, the vote when it's taken will be whether to accept a bid submitted by Benton Harbor-based Wightman & Associates to engineer other parts of the trail. As Supervisor Jim Stover pointed out, approval of the bid also would constitute approval of the company's design of the at-grade crossing of U.S. 12 at South Third Street.

Wightman's Steve Carlisle explained in detail Monday night the pedestrian-crossing signs, pavement markings and traffic-signal button pedestrians would push to activate 32-second crossings, all of which are aimed at improving safety. He mentioned, too, the problems associated with other options -- a pedestrian bridge or underpass -- from their more than $1 million cost to Americans with Disability Act restrictions that would require 350- to 400-foot ramps on either side of the bridge or underpass.

In addition, Carlisle said the Michigan Department of Transportation, a major player in funding and engineering the project, isn't willing to fund a bridge and won't consider an underpass unless it's in conjunction with resurfacing the highway. Currently, resurfacing isn't expected in the next five years, he said.

He also emphasized the lack of issues at other pedestrian crossings at trails on U. S. 31 in Holland, Mich., and the current trail link at Cleveland Road and Riverside Drive in South Bend. Only one of the crossings, in Holland, has had a pedestrian accident, he said.

Several area residents also spoke in favor of the at-grade crossing with only one, Jim Vella, the husband of Trustee Christine Vella, pointing to the danger of the intersection. Trustee Dick Cooper agreed with Vella that the intersection has had its share of accidents, adding that's why additional safety measures are needed.

"If we don't improve it ... I don't know how I could live with that,'' he said.

Christine Vella asked whether a pedestrian island could be added for those who cross late, a possibility that Carlisle agreed to consider.

But Stover still expressed concern, particularly for unattended 15-year-olds likely to use the trail to access township baseball diamonds behind the township hall.

After Stover questioned whether state grants would be lost should current trail plans be altered, Marcy Colclough, of the Southwestern Michigan Commission, argued that's a strong possibility given that emphasis has been placed on the trail connecting the two states.

"It would connect communities ... I do think it (altering plans) does jeopardize the funding,'' she said.

Staff writer Lou Mumford: