Column: Rebuild for community, not special interests

3:27 PM, Apr. 10, 2013  |  Comments

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Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part column about the reconstruction of Business 51.

In last Thursday's column on rebuilding Division/Church Street aka Business 51, I stressed the opportunity to enhance - not degrade - the area's historic homes and the quality of life for the thousands of people who live along the street and in the neighborhoods to the east and west.

This column focuses on the opportunity to improve safety for all community members who use the street. And, it stresses the need to reduce the taxpayers' burden for the project.

? Safety: When my family lived at 1317 Shaurette St., three houses off Division, my husband and I walked and biked to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Our children went to school on foot or bicycle, crossing Division to get to elementary and junior high school. The corridor was busy then, but crossing it was safe.

Thirty years later, traffic has increased. According to the last two mayors, Gary Westcott and Andrew Halverson, the population of Stevens Point, now about 27,000 people, doubles during the day. That means up to 27,000 vehicles may be pouring into our small city, and a large number of them use the Division/Church Street corridor. Driving to and from work and school, these drivers are in a hurry.

They don't want to stop their momentum at a signaled intersection. So right-turn-on-red means barely slowing down, let alone stopping, and left-turn-on-green means wheeling through the intersection if there's no oncoming vehicle. Few drivers are looking for a bicycle or pedestrian in the crosswalk.

Today, children residing west of Division/Church Street do not have a Safe Route to School. They must cross this crowded race track to get to Jefferson, St. Joseph and St. Paul elementary schools or to P.J. Jacobs Junior High. In fact, adults have difficulty crossing this street, according to several speakers at a recent meeting of the county's bicycle and pedestrian planning committee.

The city has a responsibility to redesign the corridor to give safe passage to non-motorists. Solutions lie in reducing the number of vehicles on this road, slowing them down and providing accommodations for walkers and cyclists.

Creating two lanes rather than four would disperse traffic onto other north-south routes and calm the traffic that remains on Division/Church Street.

? Taxpayer dollars. Right now AECOM, a global firm with a local office, is redesigning Division/Church Street. The company will be paid from $6 million the Department of Transportation (DOT) gave Stevens Point when it transferred jurisdiction of the former state highway. The rest of the $6 million will pay for a portion of the project's first phase, to begin at the southern edge of town where Whiting ends.

But the DOT money won't go far, and when it runs out city taxpayers will have to take over. It will cost an additional $30 million, according to Halverson, to reconstruct the street with "all the amenities" up to Northpoint Drive. Although grants may be available, the city will have to borrow for the project. Taxpayers, then, will carry the burden.

To reduce the burden of debt, I recommend rethinking the scope of the project. In addition to reducing the number of lanes and questioning amenities, the street should be reconstructed - the most expensive scenario - only if utilities are failing.

If water and sewer pipes buried beneath the pavement are leaking, then the city should tear up the street, dig down and replace the piping. Then, the surface could be reconstructed to last another 30 to 40 years.

But if the pipes are sound, then the city need only rebuild the pavement to last 10 to 15 years. The savings would be astronomical.

We must pay to give pedestrians and bicyclists safe passage along and across Division/Church Street. We also must spend money to protect area residents and preserve their historic homes and neighborhoods along the corridor.

But, for any other improvement - more lanes, wider lanes, bigger intersections, complicated roundabouts - taxpayers and city officials must be skeptical and tight-fisted.

Finally, I repeat my warning: We need to beware of behind-the-scenes lobbying. As a citizen involved in the redesign of other city streets, I know that the public's input - even the recommendations of highway engineers - can be subverted when certain entities with access to public officials want a street design to favor their own interests over the interests of the community.

Let's borrow money to improve safety and connectivity for all community members who use and live near Division/Church Street. We could afford it if we're careful.

If we're not careful, we could get a much-enhanced expressway with "all the amenities." And a huge burden of debt.

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If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

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