By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — A brief presentation to discuss a design for the second phase of construction along Thomas Street stretched for more than an hour Wednesday night, drawing sharp criticism and concern from residents opposed to the plan.
Representatives from engineering firm AECOM along with Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman were on hand to present the final 30 percent design plan for the project, which calls for reconstruction of the road from Fourth Avenue to the Wisconsin River.
AECOM representative Ryan Barz told the crowd that a main goal of the project is to improve safety and address roadway capacity along Thomas Street, one of Wausau’s main arterial roadways. But residents are raising concerns after learning that the design did not incorporate a predictive safety analysis that would indicate how much safer the new road might be.
Predictive analysis helps identify roadway sites with the greatest potential for improvement and quantify the expected safety performance of different project alternatives, according to Federal Highway Administration officials.
But that, representatives said, was not in their contract.
Residents were also sharply critical of the design itself, which calls for a raised median and bike lanes on each side of the road. The design largely mirrors that of the first phase of reconstruction, completed this fall.
Barz acknowledged that the planned median will force emergency vehicles and residents to drive several blocks out of their way when approaching certain streets and driveways. City officials said they have not consulted with Wausau Fire officials regarding the potential impact this would have on emergency response times, but plan to do so in the future.
Several residents also questioned the need for bike lanes and suggested that bike traffic be rerouted along a side street for safety reasons. But Lindman said the city’s comprehensive plan calls for accommodating bicycle and pedestrian traffic and said many residents embrace the idea of bike lanes on major thoroughfares.
Questions were also raised about traffic projections, which also played a role in the decision to rebuild the road.
In 2006, city leaders approved a five-lane conceptual plan for the road after they were advised that traffic along Thomas Street was projected to increase dramatically to 30,000 vehicles per day by 2026. Traffic safety and increased road capacity remain among the primary reasons noted by Lindman this week for the reconstruction.
But AECOM representatives admitted that those projections have now changed, noting that traffic forecasting is “not a perfect science.” Traffic levels have remained between 15,000 and 17,000 vehicles per day, and are only now projected to grow by a 1/2 percentage point each year.
In defending the project, city officials point to high crash rates along Thomas Street. But that, too, raised questions on Wednesday when residents learned that engineers, while acquiring crash data, have not mapped the data out to determine which intersections pose the most danger and would benefit most from other traffic calming measures such as stop lights.
Still swirling in the mix are questions about potential toxicity of the soil in the neighborhood. Ted Warpinski, an attorney representing a group of concerned neighborhood residents, has hired an engineering firm to test the topsoil in the area in the coming weeks.
According to an email from Warpinski to city officials, the firm will employ a more sensitive test than the one used by AECOM to determine whether dioxins still exist after years of toxic spills from manufacturing activities in the area.
Residents are also concerned about the loss of affordable housing that will result from the reconstruction plan. All 12 homes lining the north side of Thomas Street from First Avenue and the Wisconsin River, including one low-income apartment complex, would be demolished to make way for the road. The Fast Break Mobil station and Cheers bar are also targeted, according to the plan, which appears to align with a 2014 conceptual design approved by the city council for the Thomas Street corridor (see image below).
“It is clear that the reconstruction is just the first step in a larger redevelopment effort in the area and that the City plans to acquire all the properties on the north side of Thomas Street as part of the larger redevelopment effort,” Warpinski wrote, in an email to city officials.
Lindman encouraged residents to email questions, concerns, and comments to him about the project before Dec. 5, when the Capital Improvements and Street Maintenance Committee will discuss the plan. Comment forms are available online and should be emailed to Eric.Lindman@ci.wausau.wi.us .