Bicycle advocate lobbies public to garner support for four-to-three lane conversion
By Brandi Makuski
Almost 80 local residents turned out for Thursday’s listening session at Washington Elementary School, where four city council members were to hear public input on local ordinances, storm water drainage issues and an informal proposal to add bike lanes to Stanley Street.
But it was the residents who did most of the listening: representatives from city and county government spoke, and a large part of the discussion was led by a UWSP professor.
Aldermen David Shorr, Garrett Ryan and Shaun Morrow, along with Councilwoman Cathy Dugan — who was billed as the meeting host — were all in attendance. Brief talks were also given by Michael Ostrowski, director of community development, Public Works Director Scott Schatschneider and Nathan Sandwick, Community Development Educator for Portage County UW-Extension, all of whom essentially discussed their positions and general department goals over the next several months. The three men also answered questions from residents about specific projects.
Tori Jennings, an anthropology professor at UW-Stevens Point, had most of the floor time during Thursday’s 90-minute meeting. Shorr introduced Jennings as being “from Revisioning Point”, a local grassroots organization, but the fact that Jennings is also the chairwoman for the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) was never mentioned.
Jennings showed the audience two YouTube videos — it was not disclosed during the presentation who produced the videos — showing the benefits of a four-to-three lane roadway conversion as a means to calm traffic and increase safety. One of the videos was taken in Tomahawk, Wis., featuring that city’s director of public works discussing improvements of the traffic flow following the lane reduction which occurred there.
The second video showed the heavy traffic on Division St., along with the difficulty pedestrians had in crossing it.
Jennings has been allowed to make similar presentations promoting the lane conversion, also known as a “road diet”, at multiple city meetings over the past several months even though BPAC, which is comprised of five local appointees, is advisory to the city plan commission — not the city council — and only has authority to make recommendations.
Jennings was also a key figure in securing a $400,000 DOT grant to pay 80 percent of the cost for an unrelated project; installation of bicycle and pedestrian lanes along 14 miles of city roads. That announcement was made last week.
When one woman in the audience asked if this project was moving ahead on Stanley St., both Dugan and Jennings answered, “Yes.”
But the re-striping of Stanley St. has never been discussed by the city council, having only been introduced as an idea on Sept. 12. At that evening’s Finance Committee meeting, Ald. Garrett Ryan made the proposal while reading from a prepared statement following Jennings’ most recent video presentation, this one to the Public Protection Committee.
On Thursday, Ryan — who did not address the audience — said the proposal makes sense for practical reasons, like improving safety, but also said he’s got a grander plan in mind.
“It also flows in conjunction with having a discussion on the direction we want to take with Division St., long-term,” Ryan said. “Four-to-five years down the road when we decide we don’t want to spend $6 million on resurfacing [Division St.]; at that point, we can look back at Stanley St. and see this layout has proven its worth.”
Ryan said he plans to call for an immediate vote on approving the re-striping at the Monday city council meeting — without going through the process of a formal public hearing on the subject, or having any traffic data for that roadway in hand.
But it wasn’t immediately clear if Ryan would be able to call for that vote, as the final budget for 2017 will not be up for approval Monday.
When asked if he’d been hearing from constituents that they want the council to move quickly on re-striping the roadway, Ryan said, “From people we’re educating on the topic, like tonight, yes.”
When asked her thoughts on the meeting, Dugan said she was thrilled with the turnout.
“We had so much we had to say, and so many experts we had to bring in,” Dugan said. “The real problem, with such an intense agenda, Tori [Jennings] brought forward the idea of Stanley St., and she needed to get that out.”
Dugan said Jennings was invited to give the presentation because, “She’s doing a lot with the city regarding trying to convert the four lanes to three.”
When asked if she was concerned audience members may have left the meeting with the belief the Stanley St. project was already green-lit, Dugan said, “I would say that’s accurate.”
“It’s terrible on Stanley [Street],” Dugan added. “I had to take my life into my own hands to get here tonight.”
When asked if the proposal had been given too much internal, and unofficial, discussion without first having a public hearing, Dugan said, “Then there should be one. There should be a public hearing.”
“I see Tori [Jennings] as the chief educator on this particular item — and then she turns it over to the city to jump through all the hoops,” Dugan said.
When asked why Jennings — as opposed Schatchneider, who actually works for the city — has been allowed to continue giving the presentations, Dugan replied, “Oh, she’s everywhere giving presentations.”
When asked a second time why the information wasn’t being introduced by those on city staff, Dugan replied, “I can’t tell you. I think [Jennings] has the best information. I’ve checked her sources; the sources are good.”
When asked if she felt the presentation from Jennings was one-sided or biased, as the presentation contained no contradictory information, crash data or a traffic study of the Stanley St. corridor, Dugan replied, “Biased? Not biased; I think she’s advisory to the [city] council and she knows a whole lot. You’d have to ask the powers-that-be, beyond me.”
The city council meets at 7 PM on Monday, Sept. 19 at the courthouse, 1516 Church Street. The public is welcome to attend.