By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — At least three city council members were not aware of changes to federal road design regulations leading up to a crucial vote on the Thomas Street reconstruction project, Wausau Pilot and Review has learned.
The changes, which took effect more than a year ago, could potentially allow the city to rebuild the road largely within its current footprint and eliminate much of the need to purchase millions of dollars in what is now taxable property along the Thomas Street corridor.
The council on Aug. 8 voted 6-4 to move forward with a 30 percent design plan as the first step in the project. During the meeting, council member David Nutting, who represents a large portion of the area affected by the proposed project, asked Public Works Director Eric Lindman to directly confirm that as an urban principal arterial roadway, Thomas Street “cannot stay as is.”
“Right, and we need to meet federal highway guidelines for this road,” Lindman said in response.
But federal design standards changed in May 2016. That’s when the Federal Highway Administration, or FHWA, published new rules for “low-speed,” no freeway roads designed for traffic below 50 mph, easing requirements significantly. Rather than imposing 13 criteria for all arterial roadways, the FHWA will now require only the criteria of design speed and design loading structural capacity for roads such as Thomas Street.
Design speed is a selected speed used to determine the various geometric features of the roadway, according to the FHWA. Design loading capacity refers to the road’s ability to handle loads, such as weight.
Nutting, who voted in favor of moving forward with the design plan, said he was not aware of the changes.
In an email to Wausau Pilot and Review, Nutting said he had previously raised the question of whether staying within the current footprint of the road was a possibility and was told it was not. But those discussions happened before May 2016, when the rules changed.
“Upon seeing the first preliminary renderings of phase two, I again have raised the question of reductions in the initial sprawl, as it dramatically impacts businesses and homes,” Nutting wrote.
More than 200 residents signed a petition earlier this month asking city leaders to reject the plan to rebuild Thomas Street or keep the design within the existing footprint of the road. The project is the second phase of a plan to redesign the street and would stretch from Fourth Avenue to the Wisconsin River. Many residents in the River Street neighborhood, the area surrounding the project, are vehemently opposed to the reconstruction plan, in part due to concerns over soil toxicity from a former wood manufacturing plant.
Nutting is now calling for an option that adheres only to the new federal rules while still addressing traffic issues at two intersections. At Thomas Street and Cleveland Avenue, a sharp turn creates a blind intersection that needs visibility enhancements, smoothing and traffic calming initiatives, Nutting wrote.
“Also, the intersection at Dairy Queen must be studied as to if a vehicular sensing traffic signal would benefit those residents and city vehicles to gain safe entrance to Thomas,” Nutting wrote.
Council members Becky McElhaney and Dennis Smith, both of whom voted against the project, also said they were unaware of the federal rule changes.
The FHWA said its revisions “help reduce cost and speed up the design of roads and streets located in smaller towns and cities … [and] allow state and local engineers to develop flexible design solutions that meet local travel needs and goals.”
Mayor Rob Mielke has not responded to multiple requests for comment on this issue and has not said whether he will consider vetoing the council’s move in light of this new information.