City Could Hire Independent Consultant for Bus. 51
Left, Aldermen Michael O’Meara (left) and Randy Stroik at Monday’s Board of Public Works Meeting. Stroik voted against hiring an independent consultant for the Bus. 51 project, saying the voters should decide the roadway’s future. (City-Times photo)
Some aldermen say consultant will be used to “sell” the public on the Business 51 overhaul; mayor, consultant say not so.
By Brandi Makuski
The Stevens Point Board of Public Works Monday night approved hiring an independent consultant to review the Business 51 project at a cost not to exceed $30,000.
Hiring Chuck Rasmussen, an engineer with the Milwaukee- based engineering firm OTIE, city leaders say would provide the public with an independent review of the Bus. 51 overhaul, slated to begin in 2016. Rasmussen would also work to better educate the public on the details surrounding the project, which city officials say have been misunderstood by city residents.
“(Hiring Rasmussen) is a result of our last public information meeting,” said Scott Schatschneider, director of public works. “I don’t know how many folks where there, but they had a lot of concerns for the project. We knew some of these concerns exist regarding how much they’re involved in the process and how much say they’ve had in the process, so we feel we need to go back to the public and reengage them- see if we can’t get more buy in, or at least more of fair shake with public opinion of the project.”
Schatschneider was referencing a November public informational meeting held at Jefferson Elementary which became heated after some individuals protested the project in its entirety by cursing and shouting at the mayor and project leader Bruce Gerland from AECOM, the firm hired to design the new roadway.
Schatschneider said Rasmussen would present the project in a more detailed manner in small groups of individuals from the south business end, the central residential section and the north business side of the Business 51 corridor.
But not everyone was convinced it was a good idea. Alderman Tony Patton called the move “hiring a consultant for the consultants”.
“So we’re hiring this gentleman to sell it to the public, to tell them it’s going to be okay,” Patton said. “I know a few people were upset- and some were extremely upset- but fundamentally the project wouldn’t change, would it?”
Mayor Andrew Halverson said Rasmussen was being brought on board to not only better explain the project to the public, but also to help the city identify which pools of funding it could qualify for from state and federal sources. He said Rasmussen’s history working for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation makes him uniquely qualified to assist the city.
“We went to Mr. Rasmuesen and said, ‘Ya know, Chuck, we have to completely reevaluate everything we’re doing here, we need an objective third party to come in an review the traffic projections, work on the road diet idea, work out all these different statistical issues’,” Halverson said.
“When we re-approach the community, we may very well go back and not pursue some of what right now are developing as more final alternatives (for road design). We realize there are a lot of statistics and a lot of things the community has to better understand. It’s not so much about selling it as it is about making sure there’s time to work through the questions people have, and in the end it may very well change the project. But it’s possible it won’t change at all,” he added.
“I guess I though that’s why we hired AECOM to being with,” Patton said. “With all their credentials, I thought they’d have somebody internally, and I guess I’d feel more comfortable if they were paying the $30,000.”
Halverson said he and Community Development Director Michael Ostrowski had considered that, but instead sought a completely independent review.
“Somehow, by almost no one’s fault, we failed in terms of informing the public,” Halverson said, adding even the media wasn’t properly referencing the roadway overhaul as a city project, not a DOT project.
Alderman Mike Wiza said city leaders have historically not given the public a reason to trust them- one main stumbling block, he said, to more widespread approval of the project.
“We had a project. The administration came up with an idea how to handle the project. We had public meetings. Absolutely no one not on city staff agreed with this project. We promised we would listen to the people. And then we tore the mall down anyway. This is forming into the same thing. Historically, the public has reason to question us. Nobody I’ve talked to; nobody at the meetings short of AECOM and city staff have been in favor of bringing this (Division Street) down to two- lanes,” Wiza said.
“A big portion of the reason we’re bringing it down to two lanes is because we don’t really have the money to pay for all the relocations for these additional properties to make it four lanes with the bike lane. And now we’re going to spend another $30,000 to convince or educate the public to our way of seeing things again? Take that $30,000 and put it towards doing the project right,” Wiza added. ” We already have ideas- AECOM needs to take those ideas from the public meetings and change the plan, make it work. I could never vote for something everybody else is against.”
Halverson said the project has a negative response from the public because of the same misconception held by Wiza.
“There’s that reaction that, somehow, the project has unfolded in a way that hasn’t been listening to the people, and it really has,” Halverson said. “The main concerns the engineering firm heard were that we don’t want to lose our businesses, we don’t want to lose our homes. Those were the main concerns. So how do we exercise some engineering common sense by addressing traffic flows and minimizes relocations? A lot of homes will be destroyed if we go to the four-lane model. We changed gears demonstrably based on what AECOM heard.”
Randy Stroik, District 9 Alderman who cast the lone vote against hiring the consultant, said the board should make no decision, leaving the project instead in the hands of voters.
“We have a spring election coming up, and I think there is confusion that has not been clearly vetted- I still have questions that haven’t been answered,” Stroik said. “To me, we have time. Nothing is going to happen until 2016. What would keep us from asking people to vote in a nonbinding referendum? That way we could shift gears, educate and send out the message between now and April.”
Stroik added he saw hiring the consultant as paying $30,000 “to make all the people opposed to this ‘see the light’, and clearly I don’t think we should be focused on that”.
Halverson said any public mistrust is a cause of misconception- all the more reason to bring fresh eyes to the project, which he said has “too many shades of gray” and it would not be practical to form into a referendum question.
“It could also open up a completely different can of opponents that potentially could arise to Mr. Rasmussen’s suggestions. We’re not trying to sell anything; we’re trying to get folks to understand it’s not just two lane- versus- four lane. There’s vehicular dynamics, traffic counts and pedestrian issues. That’s where the expertise of Mr. Rasmussen would come in,” Halverson said.
“I’d try and bring a smaller group, representative of each of the three groups identified- the south commercial district, the residential and the north commercial district- I would work with them so they understand the design process,” Rasmussen said. “From there we’d go into the environmental document- it’s critical to discuss the alternatives and how it affects traffic and the community. We’d apply community- sensitive solutions. I would prefer we have an identified group to work with- per their input we’d make recommendations to the board. My goal would be to try to bring out community opinion and at the same time to educate them. There’s always compromise on a project like this.”
Hiring Rasmussen must earn the approval of the Common Council, which meets Monday night at the courthouse.