It’s Official: City Changes Focus Away From Bus. 51, Towards Overpass
Suomi Only ‘No’ Vote for Putting Bus. 51 on Back Burner for Next Decade
By Brandi Makuski
The Stevens Point Common Council on Monday voted to formally change the city’s infrastructure focus away from Business 51 and towards what Mayor Andrew Halverson calls a “more immediate need in terms of safety”.
Halverson in April made the suggestion that the city should put the much- debated Business 51 reconstruction project on hold in favor of building an overpass at the Canadian National train crossing on Country Club Drive/Hoover Road, which city leaders refer to as a “grade separation” of the roadway.
“We can fill potholes and cracks for a long time on Business 51,” Halverson said in April. “What we can’t do is move those trains.”
Halverson said emergency crews from Fire House #2 on Industrial Park Road frequently have to reroute because of the approximately 30 train crossings each day along the road, potentially putting lives at risk. Traffic, he said, is often backed up for several minutes creating frustrated and even angry drivers. He said delays at the train crossing is the top complaint from residents his office receives.
The $12.3 million price tag quoted for the project by engineering firm AECOM makes it a “very viable project that should be celebrated as early as possible”, Halverson said.
Alderwoman Joanne Suomi of District 2 was the only Council Member to vote against changing the city’s focus because she felt safety concerns for pedestrians and bicyclists at the intersections of Fourth Avenue/Division Street and Maria Drive/Division Street were more important. The remaining Council Members were optimistic about the move, but not without at least some fiscal reservations they aimed at Comptroller-Treasurer Corey Ladick.
“If we were to focus this grade separation- and I work in that area so I know it’s sorely needed- at what point, in your expert opinion, do you feel we would financially be able to cut back and revisit the Business 51 project, in light of all the borrowing we’ve already had?” Asked Alderman Mike Wiza.
Ladick said the city has a heavy focus on repaying debt quickly allowing for additional borrowing without a heavy strain on the city’s credit rating or tax base.
“I do think that it’s realistic, considering the plan for Bus. 51 is that it would always be a phased project so it wouldn’t be one big hit all at once,” Ladick said Monday. “One of the biggest unknowns with the Business 51 project is what kind of grant funding we could get; certainly when you’re looking at the $30 million project, if you have, say, 80 percent grant funding- which is what we got for our first phase- well, that’s a real reasonable cost that the city can handle.”
He added with the $12.3 million price tag for the proposed overpass, and the unknown total cost of the Bus. 51 project, the city would need to “stay very focused” on spending for capital projects.
“One thing we’ve done to prepare for the large capital projects that we have is we’ve budgeted more money for debt service (paying back city debt); it’s put us in a much stronger position to tackle both the overpass and the Bus. 51 project,” Ladick said.
“So, basically you’re telling us we have the money now for the grade separation project, and at least as far as you can foresee, ten years down the road we should be okay for borrowing we’d need to do for Business 51,” Wiza said.
“Yes,” Ladick replied. “Of course I want to emphasize that we have to stay focused, though, in managing our capital projects.”
Wiza, along with Council President Jeremy Slowinski, said he worried how the city would be prepared for an unexpected emergency, as well as regular road maintenance, if it committed to both projects. Ladick said the city always works to have a backup plan but no contingency is foolproof.
“You’re always going to have those unexpected contingencies out there, and it is a little bit hard, especially when you’re looking at a ten- year projection. The borrowing we’re doing today should be paid off by the time we’re looking to borrow for the Business 51 project,” Ladick said. “It’s easy for me to look 3 years, 4 years, 5 years down the road and say, ‘okay I can see where our payments start to fall and what we’ll have available for borrowing in a few years’. But It’s hard to project if you’re going to have a $10 million expense that just comes up. I certainly hope not.”
Director of Public Works Scott Schatschneider said the city is in a good position to continue regular road maintenance for the next decade, as well as the temporary fix of repaving Bus. 51 with 2 1/2 inches of asphalt. Schatschneider said the cost of that repaving one segment of the corridor- from the southern city limits to the Patch Street underpass- will cost about $1 million.
“But we’re also taking steps and researching other creative solutions, looking at other communities like Wausau to see what they’ve done in the past to take their roads from 7-12 years and past,” he said. “So there are solutions out there where we can take Business 51 to the point where we’re ready to work on it. I’m very comfortable that we can do that at a cost that isn’t going to kill us.”
Formally changing the city’s focus will open additional resources for the project, which Halverson has said could begin construction in either 2016 or 2017.