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Thomas Street project edges forward, but sparks legal questions

in Investigations/Wisconsin news

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — Members of the city’s capital improvements and street maintenance committee on Wednesday narrowly voted to move forward on a design plan for Thomas Street, while approving a request for independent environmental testing of the area.

Committee members Lisa Rasmussen, Karen Kellbach and Sherry Abitz voted to authorize engineers to advance the plan to the 60 percent design phase. The plan, which is expected to undergo significant revision, currently stands at 30 percent completion. Gary Gisselman and Becky McElhaney were opposed. The decision is subject to full council approval.

City leaders received 26 written comments from the public in the days leading up to the vote. Those comments, which were included in the packet about two hours before the meeting, were largely — though not entirely — critical of the plan.

Wausau resident Ka Lo expressed concerns that the city has so far failed to include the Hmong community in these discussions. At a public hearing last month, Public Works Director Eric Lindman told Lo that Hmong language materials would be made available to allow Hmong neighborhood residents and business owners, along with members of the Hmong community who use the Hmong funeral home that sits along Thomas Street, could weigh in. So far, that hasn’t happened, though city leaders say they are working to resolve that issue.

“The very reason why the city lost state and federal funding in 2012 is because the city violated the Uniform Act, which ensures that minority and low income properties are treated fairly,” Lo wrote. “I’m not an expert on regulations in regards to the DOT or the federal highway administration, but I am sure that not having documents in a language of a population of persons which live and utilize the Thomas Street neighborhood is a violation of the Uniform Act.”

Lou Larson, who owns a Thomas Street home slated for removal if the plan moves forward as is, said he is still upset at the prospect of losing his property. The project calls for the demolition of a dozen homes on the north side of Thomas Street.
“What I don’t understand is the attack on the north side properties,” Larson told Wausau Pilot and Review. “Why don’t they take four or five feet off each side of the street, and leave our homes alone? It feels like there’s a hidden agenda here.”
Larson said he is happy that the CISM committee approved a request by Milwaukee attorney Ted Warpinski to move forward with privately funded environmental testing to determine whether the area is safe for construction.
Council President Lisa Rasmussen said moving to a 60 percent design plan should not be interpreted as meaning the entire project is 60 percent complete. Rather, Rasmussen said, it is more like a “zoom lens” that will allow for a closer look, with room for compromises and changes. The timeline to go from 30 percent to 60 percent is about two months.
So far, Rasmussen said, the compromise solutions being added are mountable medians from Cleveland Avenue to McCleary Street to allow driveway access for homes that will remain. This option will also reduce the footprint by 4 feet and could reduce the overall cost, Rasmussen said.
Another alternative discussed was a right of way comparison between an on-street bike lane and a widened, shared-use sidewalk to accommodate bikes and pedestrians safely, but off the road.
“If that would also create a need for less right of way, we might be able to use both ideas to alleviate some home acquisitions, but we would not be able to verify that without drawing it into the 60 percent design, which is why we moved that forward last night,” Rasmussen said. “The 60 percent design also then goes up for committee review following another round of public information meetings and comment sessions.”
“We are also planning a second public feedback session in the near future to allow added input from the Hmong community who may have language barriers by using translated materials at their request,” Rasmussen said. “That feedback will also go to AECOM while they are sketching the 60 percent plan.”
Not all comments submitted to the committee were negative. Katie Kalish of Wausau was one of several residents who offered support for the plan.
“As a resident who uses Thomas St. heavily, of course this will come as an inconvenience, but given the work that has been completed on the opposite side of the street, it will be worth the wait,” Kalish wrote.

 

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