Bus. 51 Presentation Leaves Unanswered Questions, Angry Residents
Left, Assemblywoman Katrina Shankland (center) talks with Director of Public Works Scott Schatschneider (left) and Utilities Director Joel Lemke (right) after a Bus. 51 presentation Wednesday night at Jefferson Elementary. (City-Times photo)
By Brandi Makuski
About 160 people filled the Jefferson Elementary gymnasium Wednesday night, many saying they were eager to hear about updates on a plan to redevelop the Bus. 51 corridor in 2016.
The project will redesign the entire corridor from the southern city limits to I-39. Officials from AECOM and the City of Stevens Point were on hand to answer questions by the public. Several curious City Council Members and City Plan Commissioners also were in attendance- many saying they had no more information than the general public did.
“This came out of nowhere,” said Alderman Jeremy Slowinski. “I’d like to see some numbers on this project, the cost. We haven’t gotten any information on this, it just kind of appeared one day very recently.”
Project leader Bruce Gerland from the Stevens Point engineering firm AECOM gave a short presentation outlining the three viable options for the corridor, with some options widening the road and another reducing part of Division Street to a two- lane. Gerland said the final design for the roadway should be ready by spring of 2015.
As part of a Power Point presentation Gerland featured some of the estimated safety improvements as well as positive public input already implemented in the plans.
“You’ve shown a lot of the positive comments from the public,” said one man in the audience who declined to identify himself, “why don’t you show the negative comments?”
Gerland said he wouldn’t be able to address everyone’s comments, but all were taken into consideration and the majority of the comments received by AECOM were positive.
But some residents in attendance weren’t buying it.
Resident Jan Neuwirth said she didn’t approve of reducing Division to a 2- lane, and objected when AECOM compared that stretch of road to another project in Chippewa Falls, where a 4- lane with similar traffic patterns was reduced to a 2- lane, which wound up being more efficient for that city.
Neuwirth said it didn’t make sense to compare Stevens Point with another city.
“We are Stevens Point- why would you compare us to another city?” She asked. “Of course you’d want to make turning a 2- lane into a good thing, but it just doesn’t make sense. That’s a different city.”
Gerland said the comparison was used because the two roadways had similar traffic and lighting patterns, and AECOM needed to give residents in Stevens Point a frame of reference to show the lane reduction could work.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into putting these businesses up,” said Nan Grawey. “What about those people?”
Grawey, who owns Trendsetters II and Grawley Heating on Church Street, interrupted the presentation and rose from her seat to address the audience. Grawey said her business was disrupted during the Minnesota Avenue intersection remodel a few years ago- a precursor to the Business 51 project and Plover’s Post Road overhaul- and said her business has never bounced back.
“What happened to me will happen to you, just wait,” she told the audience. Grawey said the city “never sent her a letter” to inform her she would be losing a portion of her parking lot during the Minnesota Ave. project, putting her business into a tough spot and forcing her to reduce the number of workers she employs from 40 to 19.
She added she has brought a lawsuit against the DOT because of the negative affect on her business.
“They’re going to tell you one thing and then do another. They promised me I would have parking- I have no parking,” she shouted before cursing the city and the mayor and then leaving the meeting. Grawey’s outburst was met with applause.
Mayor Andrew Halverson soon took over the presentation to briefly describe the necessity of the project to residents, but was unable to answer questions about how much taxpayers would be affected.
“We dip into your pockets every year for about 3, 3.5 million dollars,” Halverson said, who tried to give a crash course on city finance to explain how a project like this could affect the taxpayers.
“There’s two different levy amounts that we focus on in the city- one is the operational levy, which is the one we’re limited on, and the debt service levy which is the one we have no restrictions on- aside from politics and how much taxes you’re willing to tolerate. So when you look at that amount of money, the operational levy is about $14 million. So if we’re borrowing the same amount per year, your taxes won’t change. A portion of what we tax you every year goes back to pay off debt. And that’s exactly how it will continue.”
When pressed by residents for a more specific answer, Halverson said the tax rate would likely not change.
“If our calculations are right- and they should be- your tax rate will change very, very little in reference to this project. We’re hoping for very little change, next to nothing for this project,” he said, declining to give an exact number.
While Halverson’s answers did little to satisfy the crowd, he did explain at least part of the project was being funded by a $5 million payment the Wisconsin DOT paid the city for taking over ownership of the corridor.
“But in terms of the design, that’s not going to be a referendum,” he said. “That’s going to eventually have to be agreed upon by the Board of Public Works and the Common Council, but that’s probably at least two years away.”